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Ai Weiwei’s Mass Activism Partnership with Human Rights Watch

1 hour 49 min ago
Click to expand Image Masks imprinted with artwork by Ai Wei Wei, including symbols of free speech, surveillance, persecution, mass obedience, and defiance. These and others are for sale on eBay for Charity.

Ai Weiwei, the famed Chinese artist and activist, is a creative thorn in the side of Chinese authorities. His activism gained prominence when he broke through the government cover up to commemorate the thousands of children who died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 due to shoddy school construction. Today, he is making a film about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Ai’s work is influenced by his life experience. In public conversations I had with him in London and during coronavirus lockdown, we discussed how our lives were influenced by our fathers. Mine fled Nazi Germany as a 12-year-old; he filled my childhood with stories of the evil that governments can do and left me determined to do something about it.

Ai’s father was a true believer in the Chinese Communist Party, even though Ai spent most of his youth in internal exile in Xinjiang because his father was denounced as a “rightist.” Ai experienced a revulsion at the compelled uniformity of life under Communist rule and an appreciation for the government’s malleability as it evolves to maintain power. His art is driven less by a belief in the inevitability of progress than by a compulsion to speak out in the face of injustice.

Since 2015, to escape persecution inside China, Ai has been a refugee. His growing interest in the plight of refugees is reflected in his epic film Human Flow and another now in progress on Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya. He is also making a film about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, just as Beijing moves to crush them.

Human Rights Watch is proud to join with Ai this week in a project of mass activism that also raises funds for our work on human rights in the pandemic. The project also benefits two colleague organizations, Refugees International and Médecins sans Frontières.

The project centers on the simple face mask, a ubiquitous form of protection during the pandemic but one that is banned in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters used masks before Covid-19 to evade police teargas and facial-recognition technology. Ai has imprinted masks with his works of art, including symbols of free speech, surveillance, persecution, mass obedience, and defiance. They are for sale on eBay for Charity.

Ai uses creativity, symbolism, and a piercing sense of humor to puncture the lies that so often prop up authoritarian rule. His work moves millions. No wonder the Chinese authorities despise him. Human Rights Watch is proud to embrace him as our partner for freedom.

Kazakhstan’s ‘Reformed’ Protest Law Hardly an Improvement

1 hour 49 min ago
Click to expand Image Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev takes the oath during his inauguration ceremony in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. © 2019 Vladislav Vodnev / Sputnik via AP

 

This week, Kazakhstan’s President Kasym-Jomart Tokaev signed into law new legislation supposedly reforming the right to protest in the country. But despite officials’ claims, the law doesn’t make it easier for people to exercise their right to protest –in some ways it will become more difficult.

Reforming Kazakhstan’s law on public assemblies became popular after authorities detained thousands protesting presidential elections last June. The previous law effectively prevented people from exercising their right to peacefully protest, so presidential pledges to adopt a new law sparked interest. But the result barely shifts the status quo.

Groups not formally registered in Kazakhstan are banned from organizing protests. So local feminist group Feminita, which was denied registration last year, can’t legally organize a protest. Neither can independent trade unions that have been unable to meet burdensome registration requirements. Kazakh nationals who have been declared “incapable” by a court, such as persons with psychosocial disabilities, are also banned, a blatant discrimination.

Those legally approved to protest face an obstacle course of rules and regulations to follow in order to actually exercise what, under the law, is more a privilege than a right.

For a start, organizers better know the difference between a “gathering,” “meeting,” or “picket,” versus a “demonstration” or “march.” The rules differ depending on what kind of protest they are planning.

While the authorities claim permission is no longer a prerequisite to protest, organizers must submit in advance a notice of intent, and, depending on the type of protest, wait three or seven days for local administration officials to “consider” and respond to the request.
Spontaneous protests are not allowed.

And since participants are prohibited from saying anything constituting “incitement to social, racial, national, religious, class, or tribal discord,” they should be careful about speaking out on issues such as wage inequality or land rights. Doing so has landed activists in jail on vague and overbroad criminal charges in recent years.

The new law also retains restrictions that the vast majority of protests can only occur in pre-designated areas.

In 2015, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, said it best: “[Kazakhstan’s] approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning.”

Sadly, despite promised reform, that assessment remains just as true today.

Kenya: Quarantine Conditions Undermine Rights

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Click to expand Image Kenyans make their way home before the daily dusk-to-dawn curfew in Nairobi, Kenya, April 6, 2020.   © 2020 AP Photo/Brian Inganga

(Nairobi) – Kenyan authorities are potentially facilitating transmission of the Covid-19 virus while forcefully quarantining tens of thousands of people in facilities that lack proper sanitation, protective equipment and food, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice said today.

The authorities have also held crowds of people in the arrivals area at the Nairobi airport for more than four hours with no social distancing, sanitizers, or masks; ferried people in packed buses with little ventilation; and, at the quarantine facilities, failed to enforce quarantine guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. The authorities also have forced people into quarantine for violating curfew or for not following orders to wear face masks.

“Kenyan authorities are exposing people to a risk of infection in poorly managed and ill-equipped quarantine facilities,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite credible accounts of people with traumatizing experiences in forced quarantine, conditions have not improved.”

Between mid-April and mid-May, researchers spoke to a total of 26 people, including 22 people in 11 quarantine facilities across the country – among them the Kenya School of Government and Kenya Medical Training Institute in Nairobi – as well as three front line doctors and a senior nurse. Those forced to quarantine were incoming travelers, people who had contacts with travelers, and, in some cases, people who violated the curfew imposed on March 27 or orders to wear masks in public.

On March 15, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the closure of all schools and colleges to curb the spread of the virus. On March 22, the health cabinet secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, banned international flights in and out of Kenya, except for cargo flights, and announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers and those who may have been in contact with them. However, the authorities did little to prepare facilities and staff on how to handle those in quarantine.

As of May 26, Kenyan authorities said they had quarantined and tested 64, 264 people. About 2 percent – 1,348 – tested positive for Covid-19, about 50 have died, and about 405 have recovered and been discharged. On May 4, the authorities said they had started mass testing in the capital, Nairobi, and in Mombasa’s old town, where residents were reluctant to present themselves for testing out of fear of being forcefully quarantined, media reported.

The authorities in Nairobi had earlier said that travelers at the airport could choose between paying to stay in a hotel or staying without charge in a government quarantine facility. Unlike in most other countries with a significant number of people in quarantine, in most cases people were not allowed to self-quarantine in private homes where feasible.

People interviewed described poor conditions of the quarantine facilities, including lack of bedding, water, food, and cleaning supplies, including soaps and detergents. They said they weren’t told of test results and that staff did not adhere to the government’s own protocols, such as wearing face masks or other protective equipment, to ensure that those quarantined do not become exposed to the virus.

A 22-year-old man who was quarantined at the Kenya Industrial Training Institute (KITI), in Nakuru, Rift Valley, following his arrival from France on March 23 said: “When I checked in, I found there was no electricity, no bathing water, no food and no water to drink. The beds had no mattresses or beddings. I slept on the spring bed with no mattress and nothing to cover myself. They told me I had to pay for water.”

Many others described similar conditions in other facilities across the country and said that the authorities sometimes extended quarantine periods from the initial mandatory 14 days, to more than 30 days, even when people tested negative several times. All those interviewed were asked to pay for accommodations, food, and other costs before being allowed to leave. Many of those who could not pay were held for additional days and, in one instance at Kenya School of Government, police were called in to beat those who persisted in pleading their inability to pay, victims and witnesses said.

On May 14, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice wrote to the health cabinet secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, requesting information on the abuses in quarantine centers, and the government’s response to the complaints of those in quarantine, conditions in the facilities and the issue of payment for quarantine. Secretary Kagwe has not responded.

“It is disturbing that people who arrived from abroad are herded straight into these facilities without considerable thought being given to the wellbeing of those sent to these facilities,” said Kwamchetsi Makokha, program adviser at Journalists for Justice, a Nairobi based organization. “It is even more shocking that some people have stayed in quarantine for periods of up to 30 days, well beyond the official 14-day period, because they were unable to pay.”

Among those forced into quarantine for breaching the Covid-19 curfew was Carolyne Akumu, a 35-year-old mother, together with her month-old child. Akumu, said that Busia county officers arrested her on May 1 as she rushed home at 7:10 p.m., 10 minutes after the curfew time. Police forced her to go to what she described as a derelict and dusty quarantine facility in Nambale, 40 kilometers from Busia, where she slept on a cold floor with nothing to cover herself and her child. Akumu said she tested negative the following day, and was released on the second day, following intervention by civil society groups.

The authorities should urgently take measures to improve conditions in public quarantine facilities, including regular cleaning and fumigation, change of bed linens, provision of meals in all facilities, and adequate psychosocial support and medical care where need be, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice said.

In addition, the authorities should ensure adequate care and access to communication, including in accessible formats, with the outside world for those in quarantine, and waive fees associated with quarantine and related medical care for those who cannot afford them. Individuals should be assessed for self-quarantine, provided that they are able to maintain social distancing and proper support from a caregiver.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Kenya ratified in 1972, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Governments are obligated to take effective steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” However, any restrictions they impose for reasons of public health or national emergency need to be lawful, necessary, and proportionate and be carried out in accordance with the law. They cannot be imposed in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

“President Kenyatta should demonstrate to the world that Kenya can implement its quarantine policy in a humane and accountable manner,” said George Kegoro, executive director at Kenya Human Rights Commission. “The president should ensure that government meets all quarantine-related costs, as cabinet secretary for health Mutahi Kagwe promised on May 6.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

Dusk to Dawn Curfew

On March 25, President Kenyatta announced a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew starting March 27. On April 3, the authorities made it mandatory for everyone to wear masks in public places and introduced mandatory quarantine for those who did not wear masks or breached curfew, but parliament rejected that requirement on April 21. Researchers spoke to three people who said the police had arrested them days before the law was presented to parliament and placed them in mandatory quarantine for breaching curfew or failure to wear a mask in public.

Kenyan media have also reported several other incidents in which police forcefully quarantined people for breaching curfew without evidence that they had been exposed to the virus. Kenyan activists have gone to court to challenge government quarantine policy. On April 18, Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids (KELIN), Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), and seven Kenyans who had served various periods in quarantine filed a petition seeking to have the government cover all expenses incurred by people in quarantine facilities or in isolation at government health facilities. The petitioners alleged that the government carried out quarantine measures in an abusive, degrading, and unconstitutional manner.

Click to expand Image   Kenyan police hold back ferry passengers causing a crowd to form outside the ferry in Mombasa, Kenya on Friday, March 27, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

Mandatory quarantine for breaching curfew or not wearing a mask is problematic. It is not the least restrictive measure possible, it can amount to detention that has been imposed without warning, and the conditions in quarantine may be undermining public health, compared with self-quarantine at home, by increasing exposure to the virus.

Failure to Provide Sanitary, Humane Conditions

On March 27, five days after Kenya imposed mandatory quarantine for international arrivals, the Health Ministry published a quarantine protocol describing the standards for quarantine facilities. The protocol requires the facilities to be well ventilated, ensure social distancing, have regular cleaning and disinfection of laundry, dedicated linen and eating utensils for each person in quarantine, and for the facilities to regularly provide detergents for cleaning.

Researchers found that the facilities did not uphold the protocols. Three people interviewed – who were quarantined at the Kenya School of Government, Pride Inn, and a 29-year-old man at KMTC Nairobi – described dusty and neglected facilities and said they were responsible for cleaning their own rooms and bathrooms but often were not provided with cleaning supplies.

Some of the facilities outside Nairobi had neither beds nor bed linen, and those admitted there had to spend nights on cold floor. For example, Kisoko Girls High School had no beds, linen, or healthcare staff to look after those admitted other than security guards at the gate.

In the Kenya Industrial Training Institute (KITI) in Nakuru county, those quarantined were given bed linen two days after admission but said it was neither washed nor replaced for the whole quarantine period – sometimes more than 14 days. In at least four facilities – KITI, Kenyatta University Conference Centre, Cooperative University Retreat Centre, and Kenya School of Government – those interviewed said that the Health Ministry did not provide detergents and that those in quarantine had to either buy the detergents or use what may have been left by previous occupants.

At KITI, four of those who had been quarantined said they had to buy food, water, and soap and clean the facility themselves. A 22-year-old man quarantined at the facility recalled:

“There was no electricity, no bathing water, no food and no water to drink. The entire place was dusty. The beds had no mattresses or beddings. I slept on the spring bed with no mattress and nothing to cover myself for two days when they brought us beddings. They told me I had to pay for water.”

Failure to Protect People Against Infection

Two arriving travelers said they believed they may have been infected either at the airport arrivals lounge where the authorities held crowds of people from various parts of the world for hours or inside fully packed and poorly ventilated buses that ferried them from the airport to quarantine centers.

Buses used to ferry the arriving travelers to the facilities were both poorly ventilated and, in some cases, packed beyond capacity, and police officers failed to observe social distancing measures or wear protective equipment on the buses, those interviewed said.

Four people said they believed they could have contracted the virus in quarantine facilities, as the authorities failed to enforce safety measures, including social distancing and not sharing cutlery, and dispensing tea from shared dispensers without using gloves.

In nearly all facilities, staff seemed unaware that people would be quarantined there and some were exposed to infection in the facilities. At the Lenana school facility in Nairobi, a 29-year-old staff member who later tested positive for Covid-19 said he was not informed when the facility received its first batch of people for quarantine on March 24. He was then made to quarantine there himself. The staff member said:

 

“They arrived at 1 a.m. and since I am the one who was at the gate, I checked them in and showed them where to sleep. No one bothered to tell me who they were. After I finished, my boss told me to join them in quarantine since I had been exposed.”

Failure to Allow Self-Quarantining for People at Risk

Despite the protocol allowing those with preexisting conditions or pregnant women to self-quarantine at home, researchers found that facilities admitted pregnant women or people with diabetes and hypertension. At-risk people or people with disabilities were held for several days at Kenyatta University Conference Centre before they were released or transferred to other facilities following complaints.

At Busia’s Kisoko Girls High School, on May 1, police and county health officials forcefully quarantined a 35-year-old woman, Carolyne Akumu, together with her one-month old baby for breaching the curfew, contrary to quarantine protocol. In another incident on the same day, police and county enforcement staff forcefully quarantined a pregnant woman at the same facility in Busia for violating curfew, even though guidelines have included pregnant women among the vulnerable that should not be quarantined.
 
Extensions of the Quarantine Period

Some of those interviewed said that government officials extended the quarantine beyond the initial 14 days for another 14 days or for indefinite time periods whenever someone in the same quarantine facility tested positive for the virus. People interviewed who were quarantined in KITI, the Kenya School of Government and Kenyatta University Conference Centre, said they suspected that the extensions of quarantine periods could have been out of the knowledge that there was a failure to enforce social distancing or provide protective equipment inside the facility. In any case, the unsanitary conditions in the facilities may have contributed to continuing exposure to the virus and thus extension of the quarantine. In other instances, the authorities also extended the stay for people who could not pay the cost of quarantine, even though some arriving travelers were promised that government facilities would be free.

A 29-year-old man who had been in quarantine at Kenya Water Institute in Nairobi said he was transferred to the Kenyatta University Hospital for isolation after he tested positive for Covid-19. After seven days in isolation, he said he was told he would be allowed to go home but in fact was held six days more because he could not pay the quarantine and isolation costs.

The indefinite extensions caused anxiety in those quarantined, ranging from fear of losing their jobs or delay in seeing loved ones. One interviewee said:

“I don’t have money because I had lost my job in Dubai, but I am now in forced quarantine in a government facility. We had been told quarantine would be 14 days and free, but I have been here 30 days. I have twice tested negative since I arrived, yet I am still here, and I have to pay Ksh 2,000 (US$20) for each day I have spent here.”

A 28-year-old man who was at Pride Inn hotel in Nairobi quarantined together with his family of four said he was told at the end of 14 days he had to pay Ksh 420,000 ($4,200) for himself and four other family members to leave. The authorities extended their stay by another 14 days after someone in their facility tested positive. “I called relatives who chipped in, but I am not sure how I am going to pay for the extended period.”

At Kenyatta University, four men who had tested negative after two tests on the eighth and twelfth day, were to have been allowed to go home on the 14th day. But, since they could not pay, the authorities held them for an additional eight days, a total of 22 days. The men were so distraught that they threatened to take their own lives, following which they were allowed to leave.

Lack of Adequate Medical Care, Counseling

Those who tested positive for Covid-19 said that the authorities transferred them to isolation wards at various hospitals where they did not receive any medical care. They told researchers they felt neglected by hospital staff and Health Ministry officials who did not make any attempts to manage the virus or provide them with medication.

A 34-year-old man who had been admitted at Kenyatta University hospital after he tested positive said he was forced to send for painkillers and lemons outside the hospital after he got a headache. A 35-year-old woman who tested positive and was admitted at Mbagathi hospital said the hospital only provided her with food and water, but no medication during the eight days she was in an isolation ward.

The authorities did not provide psychosocial counseling or mental health services for people in quarantine, though one person died by suicide and five others attempted to take their own lives. Media reported how on May 27, staff at KITI found the body of a 27-year-old South African, Elizabeth Holloway, who had been forcefully quarantined there, hanging from the ceiling of her room with a piece of cloth.

Two people who quarantined with her told researchers that she had called management the day before about the unsanitary conditions there and asked to be transferred, but that the management had ignored her pleas.

Two days after Holloway took her own life, a Kenyan woman at the same facility attempted suicide. A 22-year-old man who was in the facility told researchers: “There were no counselors, and so those of us who were there with her started talking to her until she dropped the idea of committing suicide.”

Insensitivity in Testing, Communicating Results

Those who tested positive said the testing, management, and communication of results lacked transparency and failed to meet the required professional standards. Most said they were told their results verbally, by an unidentified person calling them by phone, and never given lab results. A 32-year-old man admitted at Kenyatta University hospital at the end of March said the hospital staff became hostile when he requested documentary evidence of the lab results.

A medical practitioner admitted at Mbagathi hospital said the hospital staff ignored his repeated requests for lab results. Another medical practitioner recalled:

“They told me it was positive but didn’t show me any paper. It was always a verbal communication.… It was that way the whole time … no documentary evidence. Many people were not convinced they were being told the right results.”

Many of those who tested positive also told researchers that the insensitive way officials relayed results and lack of information about what would happen to them caused them enormous stress and anxiety.

Stigmatization

Most people interviewed said that quarantine facility staff treated them poorly. A 36-year-old woman who attempted suicide at KITI in Nakuru said: “I got a panic attack after one of our colleagues committed suicide. I called for help, but the doctor just laughed at me.”

People at the facility told researchers that the surrounding community and many of the staff at the facility would reject their money when they tried to buy food, on suspicion the money was contaminated. A 29-year-old man who had been quarantined there said:

“We didn’t have food inside the facility. We wanted to buy food from vendors over the fence, but they would decline our money. Staff who we thought would help would also not take money from us. We would wait for one nurse who would accept to help buy for us food from outside, but we had to send the money to her via mobile money.”

At one quarantine center, interviewees said, on occasion kitchen staff declined to serve those in quarantine, compelling a security guard to bring the food. At a hospital in Nakuru, a 34-year-old woman who had been admitted there pending Covid-19 testing said that hospital staff avoided her even after she tested negative. She said: “They would not talk to me. They would drop meals at the floor at the entrance of my ward and run away without telling me. I would discover the food cold on the floor at the door, sometimes hours later.”

Myanmar: Hundreds Jailed for Covid-19 Violations

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Click to expand Image Pastor David Lah leaves court after an appearance on charges filed against him for holding religious services in April, Yangon, Myanmar, May 20, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – At least 500 people, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities, have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison in Myanmar since late March 2020 for violating curfews, quarantines, or other movement control orders, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar authorities should stop jailing people for Covid-19-related infractions.

Most have been sentenced under the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, and various penal code provisions. Authorities have charged hundreds more in cases that are ongoing or resulted in fines. Imprisoning people for violating curfews, quarantine, and physical distancing directives is almost always disproportionate as well as counterproductive for reducing threats to public health.

“Limiting public health risks through social distancing is crucial, but jailing people for being outside at night just adds to everybody’s risk,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing hundreds behind bars in crowded, unhygienic prisons defeats the purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.”

In March and April, national, state, and local authorities announced several directives and restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Measures include a mandatory 28-day quarantine for foreign arrivals, nighttime curfews, a ban on gatherings over five people, and several township-level lockdowns. On March 28, government media announced that “those breaking public health order can face jail time.… The Covid-19 pandemic is also a natural disaster, and those who do not comply with the law can face fines and even prison time.” Local authorities oversee enforcement and criminalization of violations, with wide variations across the country.

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified – but only when those measures are strictly necessary, legal, based on scientific evidence, limited in scope and duration, proportionate to address the crisis, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. In the cases below, drawn from media and civil society reports, Myanmar authorities acted well beyond the public health threat posed by Covid-19. These cases represent only a small fraction of the government’s use of punitive measures.

Most of those imprisoned were charged for violating curfew orders under section 188 of the penal code, which carries a sentence of up to six months for “disobedience to [an] order duly promulgated by [a] public servant.” The majority of states and regions imposed curfews in late April requiring people to remain in their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. The government rolled back the nationwide curfew to 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. on May 15.

Authorities arrested 330 people in the border township of Myawaddy, Karen State, between April 20 and May 6 for violating the curfew. At least 50 were sentenced to between two weeks and one month in prison, with the rest fined 50,000 kyat (US$35). Those who could not pay were jailed. In Ayeyarwady Division, authorities sentenced 212 people to between one and two months in prison in April for breaking the regional curfew order. Authorities in Shan State meted out the strictest penalties, sentencing over 20 people to three months in prison for breaking curfew between April 22 and May 4.

Curfew orders are imposed under section 144 of the criminal procedure code, which allows for wide-ranging responses to social conflict or unrest and has long been exploited by security forces to exercise broad de facto emergency powers without oversight. Section 144 should be revised to reduce the scope and scale of its application and increase the threshold for emergency orders, Human Rights Watch said.

People arriving in Myanmar from abroad are required to undergo quarantine for 28 days – 21 in a state facility followed by 7 days of self-quarantine at home. About 61,000 people are currently quarantined in state-run facilities across the country, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. The majority are migrant workers who have returned from Thailand and China. Border crossings were closed for most of April, but at least 60,000 arrived in March and May.

On April 28, a 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy who recently returned from Thailand were sentenced to three months in prison for leaving a state quarantine facility in Mawlamyine after one week. Authorities charged them under section 18 of the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, which provides up to six months in prison and a 10,000 kyat fine for “whoever violates the prohibitive or restrictive order issued by the relevant organization or officer.” On April 9, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, urged governments to institute a moratorium on new children entering detention facilities, release all children who can be safely released, and protect the health and well-being of children who must remain in detention.

Sections 26 and 30(a) of the Natural Disaster Management Law have also been used regularly to incarcerate violators of quarantine and physical distancing orders. Section 26 carries a prison term of up to two years for anyone who “interferes, prevents, prohibits, assaults or coerces” a department or official conducting “natural disaster management.” Section 30(a) carries a maximum one-year sentence for failing to comply with a disaster management directive.

The Yinmarbin Township Court sentenced a man in Sagaing Division to one year in prison under section 26 for “being drunk and loitering around” while under state monitoring for possible Covid-19 infection. Another man in Sagaing Division was sentenced to six months under section 30(a) for leaving the Ye-U township hospital while being watched for symptoms. Authorities arrested a married couple when the husband visited his wife at a state facility in Naypyidaw where they were quarantined in separate rooms. On April 20, both were sentenced to six months in prison under section 30(a).

States began issuing bans against gatherings of more than five people in March, with a nationwide ban instituted on April 17. In Sagaing’s Khin-U township, two people were sentenced to six months in prison on April 7 under section 30(a) for holding a charity event in violation of the local order against group gatherings. In Chanmyathazi township, Mandalay, 12 Muslims were sentenced on May 8 to three months in prison under section 30(a) for holding prayers at a house. Two boys arrested with them were detained for a month and a half.

On May 4, six labor rights advocates were sentenced to three months in prison for holding a protest at a factory in Yangon regarding a pay dispute. Authorities broke up the protest and charged the six union leaders and members under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.

The labor union arrests reflect a broader effort by authorities to exploit instability surrounding the coronavirus to further crack down on freedoms of speech and assembly. The government plans to increase its powers to restrict speech with a draft Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill currently being discussed in parliament, which would provide up to six months in prison for people spreading information about diseases that may “cause panic.” Parliament should revise the bill to remove criminal penalties for peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament should also amend the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill, and related regulations to remove prison sentences for peaceful violations of quarantine, stay-at-home orders, and other emergency directives.

While quarantines and social distancing are a vital part of the public health response to the pandemic, their enforcement should not give rise to new tools of abuse. Instead, the health ministry and state public health departments should facilitate compliance by coordinating inclusive public awareness campaigns; providing people in quarantine with access to health care, including mental health services, and accurate, up-to-date information; and supplying resources such as face masks, food, water, and other essentials to those in need. To the extent possible, the public health force and other relevant civilian authorities, not security forces, should oversee enforcement of quarantines orders.

In its April briefing on Covid-19 and human rights threats, the UN noted that excessive emergency measures ultimately threaten the pandemic response: “Heavy-handed security responses undermine the health response and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security or create new ones. The best response is one that aims to respond proportionately to immediate threats whilst protecting human rights under the rule of law.”

Locking people up for violating measures such as curfews and quarantine may increase the spread of Covid-19 as people are rotated in and out of crowded detention facilities. In April, Myanmar authorities pardoned about 25,000 prisoners under its annual Buddhist new year amnesty, reducing the overcrowded prison population to just above official capacity. But the remaining population still has inadequate space for effective social distancing. Prisons nationwide are ill-equipped to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, with only 30 doctors and 80 nurses employed across the entire prison system.

“Myanmar did the right thing in releasing thousands of prisoners last month, but jailing regulation violators threatens to undo that progress and put more people in harm’s way,” Robertson said. “The authorities should act to prevent the spread of Covid-19, rather than using the pandemic as a pretext for violating rights.”

Victims of Iran-Afghan Border Drowning Deserve Justice

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Click to expand Image  Afghans return to Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border with Iran, in the western Herat Province, February 20, 2019 © 2019 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Almost a month after reports emerged of the alleged drowning by Iranian border authorities of Afghan migrants attempting to cross the border into Iran, efforts to uncover the truth have achieved little.

At a May 26 meeting in Kabul, Iranian and Afghan officials vowed to jointly investigate the incident, but promises to uncover the truth have so far come to nothing. The victims’ families are still waiting for justice.

An Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission investigation found that Iranian authorities arrested the Afghan migrants while they were crossing the border from Herat province, beat them, and forced them into the Hariroud river. According to the head of the Afghan government’s fact-finding delegation, 46 Afghans entered Iranian territory, out of whom 12 were killed, 17 disappeared, and 17 survived. Other reports say 34 bodies have been recovered.

Families of three victims whose bodies were found on the Afghanistan side of the border told Human Rights Watch that the men had left for Iran on April 30, hoping to find work there. Survivors and a smuggler told the family members that Iran’s border authorities arrested the group of approximately 50 men and children, held them at a guard post overnight, beat and humiliated them, and ultimately forced them into the Hariroud river.

Iran has denied any responsibility for the alleged abuses and the deaths of these migrants, and said it is willing to cooperate with investigations. Iranian police, however, have a long history of abusing Afghan immigrants and refugees with no accountability. Since 2019, Iran’s economic crisis has fueled a dramatic increase in voluntary and forced returns of Afghans.

The drownings have sparked outrage in Afghanistan, while in Iran, several politicians have called for an investigation. It is still not clear how thorough the joint investigation will be, but strong cultural ties and a lengthy shared border with numerous border crossings should push the two countries to conduct a transparent, impartial investigation and hold those who are found responsible accountable. The families of victims are entitled to the truth and justice for their loved ones.

Singapore Judge Issues Death Sentence by Zoom

1 hour 49 min ago
Click to expand Image People walk past the Supreme Court in Singapore January 22, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

Using Zoom video conferencing, a Singaporean judge on May 15 remotely sentenced a man to death by hanging. Punithan Genasan, 37, was found complicit in drug trafficking by coordinating 2 couriers to move 28.5 grams of heroin in 2011. Genasan denied any connection to the couriers but his defence was rejected. Genasan, a Malaysian national, was extradited to Singapore in January 2016, days after he was arrested in Malaysia.

The death penalty is always abhorrent, but to deliver this sentence, the harshest a defendant can receive, through the impersonal remoteness of a Zoom video call is utterly inhumane. This practice seems spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic – earlier this month, a judge in Nigeria used a Zoom call to issue the death penalty to a man convicted of murder.

Under Singapore’s draconian Misuse of Drugs Act, the courts must impose the death penalty for drug offenses involving certain quantities of listed narcotics. There are some exceptions to this rule, none of which apparently applied in Genasan’s case.

Singapore is one of few countries that currently imposes the death penalty for drug offenses, a practice that is contrary to international human rights law. In doing so, Singapore joins the ranks of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, which all regularly execute people for drug offenses and have abysmal human rights records.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an irreversible, degrading, and cruel punishment. Singapore should end its use of capital punishment, rather than find inventive ways to hand down such sentences during a global pandemic.

Singapore also still refuses to make public the scheduling of executions, leaving relatives of those condemned and their advocates under acute stress, struggling with uncertainty until the last minute.

The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called on countries to establish a moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward its eventual abolition. Singapore should join most UN member countries and act to abolish the death penalty.

UK: Children in England Going Hungry with Schools Shut

1 hour 49 min ago
Click to expand Image A teacher collects food bags from a local food bank set up in Northampton, United Kingdom to distribute to children at her school during closures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, April 2020. © 2020 David Rogers/Getty Images

(London) – Schools and charities in England have had to distribute food directly to children from poor families since the authorities closed schools to slow the spread of Covid-19 after a government-commissioned voucher system became plagued with problems, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Kingdom government’s failure to ensure that all children have access to adequate food during school closures violates their right to food.

“The government’s failure to properly ensure all pupils had sufficient food as soon as it closed schools means children have been going hungry,” said Kartik Raj, western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should scrap its reliance on the flawed voucher system it has used to replace school meals in England and instead follow good practices being developed in other parts of the UK.”

In the rush to close schools in mid-March 2020, the Department for Education announced that it planned to set up an electronic voucher system so that families of children in England who normally receive free school meals could buy food at selected supermarket chains. But the program did not start until March 31, almost two weeks later, and is deeply flawed.

Rollout problems have left schools and families in England unable to access the electronic system. Some families have waited for weeks to receive vouchers, and some were unable to use them in supermarkets once they arrived. Food bank use and reliance on emergency food parcels have increased UK-wide during this time. But education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have pioneered more effective alternatives than in England.

Teachers in poor or disadvantaged areas had expressed fears early on about children’s access to adequate nutritious food. “When news broke that schools were closing, my first concern was food – learning came second,” said Katie Barry, head teacher at St. George’s Church of England Community Primary School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. “It feels awful to say that, but we knew not having food would be the biggest issue for families.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed food aid charities, teachers, catering professionals, and children’s rights specialists in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and analyzed data published by child food security specialists and food aid providers. The data and research strongly suggest that the government’s voucher system and other ad hoc initiatives, particularly in England, are not meeting the needs of children from low-income families or upholding their right to food and nutrition. Children across the country are being left without essential meals, despite the best efforts of schools, local authorities, and charities to plug the gap.

The Department for Education’s guidance to schools in England accompanying the voucher plan leaves unclear whether schools can be fully reimbursed for costs they may incur ensuring children have sufficient food outside of the electronic voucher program, such as food for parcels or vouchers purchased from local supermarkets. The lack of clarity effectively gives school managers incentives to use the government’s faulty electronic voucher system, even though they do not work for many families, especially those whose digital literacy, access to computers, or knowledge of English is limited.

Devolved education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland instead have opted for cash transfers, food parcels, and other systems that have provided poor families with food more quickly, effectively, and in a more dignified manner than the national government’s voucher system. In the UK, where most people have access to a bank or basic card-based account, supermarket food vouchers should only be used as a last resort and for very short periods until better alternatives for families are in place, Human Rights Watch said. Poor implementation of supermarket voucher programs can leave people without food, exacerbating the problem the vouchers are intended to solve. Even when they do work, vouchers can impose a burden on claimants and carry the risk of stigma and humiliation. Direct cash transfers and other systems better respect families’ dignity and ability to choose adequate food for their children and better protects their right to an adequate standard of living.

Schools, children’s centers, and local government caterers have used several innovative solutions to try to ensure that children do not go hungry, ranging from hot meal deliveries to lunch bags for collection, and food parcels. But these emergency efforts, developed while waiting for the vouchers or in the face of the malfunctioning system, are not sustainable solutions to a food crisis caused by ineffective central government planning.

On May 26, a representative for the UK Department for Education told Human Rights Watch that “no system of this magnitude to provide free school meals has been implemented in such a short period of time before” and that authorities and the voucher company had worked hard to reduce waiting times and improve the voucher ordering process.

There has been unprecedented demand on the country’s two major food bank networks, which report an alarming rise in the need for food parcels for families with children. Food Foundation research estimated that by April 14, food insecurity across the UK had quadrupled during the Covid-19 lockdown. The research suggested that families with children eligible for free school meals were more likely to not have enough food during the lockdown period. The Food Foundation published a further survey on May 4 that estimated that 200,000 children had to skip meals by the end of April, and that 31 percent of children entitled to free school meals did not have adequate alternatives.

The Department for Education should urgently address flaws in its supermarket voucher scheme in England while transitioning toward a cash transfer system that offers families and children greater dignity. The department should also address concerns from English schools that all reasonable expenses they incur to replace free school meals will be reimbursed by the state.

The authorities in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland should follow Wales’ lead and ensure that food is provided for children through the upcoming summer holidays, and replicate this during future planned and unplanned school closures. Authorities across the UK should consider transitioning toward a cash transfer system, following Northern Ireland’s example, offering vouchers only as a last resort.

Authorities across the UK should also share good practices in guaranteeing children’s right to food during school closures, to ensure greater protection in the event of any such crisis. Finally, the central government should abandon existing policy that can exclude children from free school meals based on their or their parents’ immigration status.

Some schools in England may reopen for limited classes in June. Schools have remained partially open to children of key workers and children considered “in need” during the Covid-19 crisis, although official data show that only a small proportion of these children have actually attended.

“The shocking levels of childhood hunger exposed by the Covid-19 crisis should prompt swift action by authorities across the UK to ensure that every child in the country has enough to eat every day, whether schools are open or not,” Raj said.

For further details about the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.

Methodology

Between April 17 and May 12, 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth telephone/video interviews or exchanged written correspondence with 12 representatives of nongovernmental groups and academic or independent experts with knowledge of food aid, children’s rights, and education; 4 representatives of local government catering agencies; staff or volunteers from 8 food banks or food distribution organizations; staff from 9 schools or children’s centers involved in delivering food aid to children from low-income families; and statutory children’s rights oversight bodies in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Under devolution of government in the UK, the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are responsible for education in their jurisdictions, while the central government has responsibility in England. The central government is also the ultimate guarantor of relevant international human rights treaty obligations, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, across all parts of the UK.

Human Rights Watch contacted and received a written response from relevant national and devolved administration authorities responsible for ensuring adequate replacements for school food for children from low-income families and the company administering the supermarket voucher scheme in England. As of May 27, no reply had yet been received from the company providing the vouchers.

England’s Flawed Supermarket Voucher Scheme

In the first two weeks after schools closed on March 20, schools in England – as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – had no option other than to put in place ad hoc measures to support children who receive free school meals. They included lunch “grab bags” to be collected at school, individual meal delivery to homes, and food parcels with supplies lasting three to seven days. Some schools that remained open to children of key workers provided hot meals on school premises to families in need. Some schools and local authorities in England gave families supermarket vouchers on their own initiative during this period to accommodate dietary restrictions, distance, or isolation to deal with Covid-19 infection.

On March 31, the Department for Education chose and recommended an electronic supermarket voucher scheme, offering £15 of vouchers per week per child for all schools in England. The voucher system, administered by a private multinational company, has been fiercely criticized for technical glitches, inadequate preparation and understaffing, difficulties and delays for school administrators using the online voucher portal, delays in families receiving them, inability to redeem them at budget supermarkets preferred by low-income families, and some supermarkets being unable to process them at checkout. The voucher provider’s website was taken offline during the Easter weekend (April 11-12) and subsequently improved.

However, in late April, Alex Rawlings, head teacher at Quarry Bank Primary School in Brierley Hill, West Midlands told Human Rights Watch that “the system doesn’t work” despite efforts by the voucher provider to fix problems: “I’ve ordered 300 vouchers successfully, but only about 50 have been received by families so far. The links the families get by email don’t work. Or worse, they get the vouchers and can’t use them at the supermarket.”

Katie Barry, head teacher at St. George’s CE Community Primary School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, on the Park Springs housing estate in a town where multiple areas experience high levels of deprivation, called the voucher system “horrendous,” citing difficulties with the online system and problems redeeming the vouchers. “One family took £15 of vouchers to the local supermarket and were told the supermarket only accepts them in multiples of 10, so they would have to come back next week,” she said. “It may seem like a small detail, but it’s demeaning to not be allowed to use the voucher.”

Maya Wittleton, head teacher at Avonmore Primary School in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, explained her concerns about the scheme for a community in which 65 percent of the children come from families for whom English is not their main language:

A lot of parents couldn’t work out the voucher system because of limited English or computer access. So they’re coming to the school to try and log in, with staff translating. These families are struggling anyway, some have traveled from conflict situations or lived through Ebola outbreaks. Asking for food like this is revisiting their trauma. It’s genuinely distressing both for the families and school staff.

Teachers said that their schools have incurred additional costs by using their own funds to buy alternative vouchers or food for parcels. Media have reported that teachers incurred personal credit card debt to pay for essential food and supermarket vouchers for their pupils. Some schools were able to get other vouchers from their local authority contacts. Schools and individual teachers in England generally spent the money on the understanding that it would be reimbursed.

But Department of Education guidance on April 7 caused further confusion as it suggested that schools that had opted to buy food or purchase other vouchers after the national voucher scheme had been introduced would not be reimbursed. The guidance also suggested that schools would have to use their existing funds for these expenses and that the department would only outline the reimbursement process in June.

Head teachers interviewed in England expressed varying degrees of concern about their ability to be reimbursed because the national voucher system was not working properly. Those in areas with higher levels of deprivation were significantly more concerned about the impact of a budget gap for their school. Some felt they had no option other than to choose the national voucher system because of their school’s inability to incur financial risk, even if the vouchers did not work well for many families.

Andy Jolley, a school food campaigner and former school governor, said:

If a school in a poor area opts to buy food or provide local vouchers, it may not have the money and will rely on reimbursement. The [April 7] guidance says if schools have any surplus they should pay or wait to find out how to claim it back later. In essence, schools end up feeling pressured into opting for the vouchers, even though they often don’t work.

Food banks have experienced a sharp rise in families needing help since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said that some of its member organizations had been overwhelmed with requests from families unable to access the online voucher system. She said that the government should be “quick and responsive and move away from the voucher scheme in the long term.”

To fill the gap, particularly in the first two weeks of school closures, schools and individual teachers serving areas of high deprivation in England, for example in Bristol, Grimsby, Birmingham, Chesterfield, the London Borough of Newham, and Cheltenham, delivered food parcels and packed lunches to children who would otherwise have received a free meal at school.

Human Rights Watch interviewed staff in schools and children’s centers in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland who are involved in distributing food parcels, as well as some food redistribution charities that provide surplus food to schools, community projects, and charities that provide food aid. Although these efforts are commendable, most said that their efforts were not sustainable long-term solutions.

Alex Rawlings, from Quarry Bank Primary School in Brierley Hill, West Midlands, an urban area of high deprivation, estimated that 100 of its 370 students were entitled to free school meals at the start of the Covid-19 closures:

My concerns really are the families we were worried about anyway. We try to call them every week but it really doesn’t replace seeing a child every day. Some of our families previously accessed the local food bank, and probably continue to do so. I really worry about the families sitting quietly who won’t come forward. Ad hoc measures of buying food and taking it to their door will only do so much.

On a positive note, after initially stating that vouchers would not be issued for the then-imminent two-week Easter holiday, the April 7 guidance officially reversed this position, but made clear that this was a temporary measure.

In the same week, in response to a litigation threat, the government clarified that it would also temporarily allow children from low-income families whose immigration status precludes them from eligibility for free school meals to benefit from the vouchers. The UK government’s “No Recourse to Public Funds” policy blocks access to free school meals for children from families in which migrant parents are not eligible for publicly funded welfare benefits. The central government should abandon these restrictions on access to free school meals for all children, given the well-documented negative effect of the policy on children from migrant families.

Surge in Demand for Food Banks and Food Aid

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic impact have exerted pressure on schools and children’s centers to provide food aid but have also increased the demand for support from food banks nationwide. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest single food bank network, said that it supported 81 percent more people during March 2020 than in March 2019. The Independent Food Aid Network, a separate group of food aid providers, reported an average increase in food aid across its system of 59 percent between February and March, compared with 3.4 percent for the same period in 2019. A third of their network experienced an increase of 100 percent or more, and 8 percent had seen increases of more than 300 percent.

Billy McGranahan, founder of Dads House, a London charity to help single parents on low incomes, said the poorest in their network “are the ones facing the onslaught of the virus…. We deliver food once a week now, sometimes twice, when families call us.” He called the situation “soul-destroying.” Dads House now runs two separate food bank distribution points in London every day, with very long queues on some days.

Joyce Leggate, chair of Kirkcaldy Foodbank, in Kirkcaldy, Fife (Scotland) said their data showed that more than twice as many families had come in for support in April compared to the previous year, mostly families with older children off from school: “These are kids who ate free school meals, went to breakfast clubs, and might even get a snack at after-school or youth clubs, all of which are closed. It highlights how close people are to food poverty. We’re a food bank and it took us by surprise.”

Gerry Fallon, who works for the local authority’s catering department in South Ayrshire, Scotland, said it is delivering food boxes rather than daily meals to almost 3,000 children:

The delivery drivers are our eyes and ears for the vulnerable. If they deliver food to a family where one child is entitled to a free school meal but they see there’s another younger child through the door who’s maybe not at school, they provide more boxes using their discretion. We err on the side of caution.

Alternatives to a National Voucher System

Given the stigma and operational difficulties associated with supermarket vouchers, devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have turned to alternative approaches, including direct cash transfers to families. In rural areas across the UK, it may be difficult for families to travel to supermarkets that accept vouchers.

Scotland made available £30 million in a Covid-19 Food Fund, part of which is earmarked for free school meal replacements and transferred to local authorities to use appropriately, through meals, food parcels, vouchers, or cash. Campaigners in Scotland have previously advocated greater use of cash transfers. Scotland’s children’s rights commissioner, Bruce Adamson, said that in terms of dignity, he strongly favors cash transfers, accompanied by active outreach by schools to vulnerable children and their families. A representative of the Scottish government confirmed to Human Rights Watch on May 22 that it had more than doubled its Welfare Fund budget to allow local authorities to make crisis grants, and that it was now “promoting a ‘cash-first’ response to food insecurity.”

In Northern Ireland, the communities and education ministers both acted swiftly, before the central government had even set up a voucher system, for £27 cash every 2 weeks to the guardian of each of the 97,000 children in the region receiving free school meals. Northern Ireland’s children’s rights commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, said the system is less complicated and ensures greater dignity, and that the authorities are taking steps to ensure that the “small but significant” number of families who do not have bank accounts can receive the money in another way. On May 21, Northern Ireland’s education minister announced that families without bank accounts had all received backdated cash transfers, and that asylum-seeking families in Northern Ireland, previously excluded from the system, were receiving additional funds on their spending cards.

In Wales, education authorities initially announced a £7 million fund for local authorities and schools to provide free school meal replacements. On April 21, the Welsh Department for Education and Skills opted out of the national voucher scheme, announced a further £33 million to continue into the summer holidays, and issued fresh guidance allowing local authorities to decide whether they provide food, issue vouchers locally, or make direct cash transfers to families. Cardiff Council, with approximately 12,400 children receiving free school meals across 125 schools, began cash transfers to parents who chose to receive them on April 27.

By contrast to these approaches which provide cash transfers based on existing bank records or developing new systems to facilitate them, the UK Department for Education told Human Rights Watch on May 26 that “in England, schools hold email and postal addresses for the majority of parents and carers, however the Department for Education does not hold bank details of parents. This means that direct payments was not a viable option.”

Hunger During School Vacations

UK authorities should use the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis to address ongoing cyclical childhood hunger during school vacations. Families already experiencing food insecurity during school vacations are likely to bear more of the economic impact of the Covid-19 closures, including through subsequent loss of employment and income.

Children’s rights campaigners, right to food activists, parliamentarians, and academics have long called for providing food year-round to ensure that an estimated 3 million children from low-income families across the UK do not go hungry during their school vacations.

Previous communication between Human Rights Watch and the UK Department for Education about its pilot projects for food provision in a limited number of deprived areas of England during the summer vacation in 2018 and 2019 highlighted the uncertainty about whether the oversubscribed pilot programs would continue or receive funding to be replicated more widely. On May 26, the UK Department for Education confirmed in writing to Human Rights Watch that it would renew £9m in funding for another round of limited holiday food provision programs in summer 2020. No public announcement has yet been made confirming this, and a promised assessment of previous pilot programs has not yet been published.

The Welsh government is the first in the UK to commit to continuing to fund free school meals through summer 2020, with families of children eligible for them set to receive £19.50 per child per week until the end of August, recognizing that the Covid-19 pandemic was likely to aggravate existing financial difficulties poor families face during school holidays. In Scotland, a few of the 32 individual local authorities have begun providing food to children year-round, and anti-poverty and children’s rights campaigners are calling for other local governments and the Scottish government to follow suit. On May 21, Northern Ireland’s education minister confirmed that cash transfers would end on June 30, and that it was up to the region’s devolved power-sharing government to decide how to fund solutions to address food poverty and holiday hunger. In a May 22 letter to Human Rights Watch, Northern Ireland education authorities confirmed that they were in discussion with other departments about how to “address the impending ‘holiday hunger’ over the summer when direct payments stop at the end of the school term.”

The Right to Food in Human Rights Law

The right to food is enshrined in international human rights law treaties that the UK has signed and is generally understood as part of the right to an adequate standard of living and linked to the right to health. The right to food is contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the latter signed by the UK in 1968 and ratified in 1976. Measures to ensure adequate, nutritious food form part of the right to health of all children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by the UK in 1990 and ratified in 1991. Guidance from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in 2013, clarifies what states should do.

Additional protections in international human rights law for women and girls who are pregnant or breastfeeding and people with disabilities may apply to some children. However, because the rights to food, an adequate standard of living, and health – like most other socioeconomic rights – have not yet been incorporated into UK domestic law, children who face violations of these basic rights as a result of governmental policy decisions currently have no legal avenue to hold the government to account on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human Rights Watch has said that the right to food should be incorporated in domestic law, as part of its research documenting the growth of food poverty in the UK in the context of social security cuts and when the issue for crisis food supply for the country’s poorest residents arose during the Brexit process.

Thailand: State of Emergency Extension Unjustified

1 hour 49 min ago
Click to expand Image Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-Ocha delivers a televised speech in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2020.   © 2020 Royal Thai Government

(Bangkok) – The Thai government’s extension of its state of emergency is an apparent pretext for violating basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 26, 2020, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha extended the draconian Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation until June 30. 

Since the state of emergency was declared on March 24 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has stifled dissenting voices and critical opinions. Thai authorities have shut down criticism from the media, healthcare workers, and the general public about their response to the pandemic, using both the Emergency Decree and the Computer-Related Crime Act’s “anti-fake news” provisions. The decree grants officials immunity from prosecution for any human rights violations they commit.

“The Emergency Decree provides Thai authorities unchecked powers to suppress fundamental freedoms with zero accountability,” said Brad Adams, Asia director.“There is no legitimate basis for extending this decree, which allows for the arbitrary and disproportionate restriction of rights guaranteed under international law and the Thai constitution.”

In March, the government issued a list of prohibitions under the state of emergency, including vague and overbroad restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom that could be enforced by prosecution: “Reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order, or good moral of people, are prohibited.”

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they are strictly necessary, proportionate to achieve the objective, and are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts said “Emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health … and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

In crisis situations, international law allows authorities to exceptionally limit speech that could endanger public health. However, access to information and freedom of expression are among the integral components of the right to health, especially during a global pandemic. Access to information includes the right to seek, receive, and share informationabout the health risks and the government’s response.

Thai authorities have brought retaliatory lawsuits and sought to intimidate whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists after they reported alleged corruption related to hoarding of surgical masks and other supplies and black-market profiteering. Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including terminating employment contracts and revoking medical licenses, for speaking out about severe shortages of essential supplies needed to treat Covid-19 patients and prevent the spread of the disease in hospitals across the country.

Human Rights Watch also documented a number of incidents in which Thai officials selectively used public health justifications to suppress fundamental freedoms for politically motivated reasons, targeting anti-government activities.

On May 22, Bangkok police arrested prominent pro-democracy activists Anurak Jeantawanich and Tosaporn Serirak for violating the ban on public assembly – one of the emergency measures imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The arrest was triggered by a remembrance service they held earlier that day with supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – known as the “Red Shirts” – to mark the 6th anniversary of the 2014 military coup. Thai authorities previously arrested Anurak on the same charges on May 13, when he held a remembrance service to demand justice for those killed and wounded by the military during the crackdown on the 2010 Red Shirts protests. Even though thermal scanners to detect fevers were provided at the events and participants wore face masks, the activists were accused of ignoring social distancing, acting in a way likely to spread the virus, and disobeying lawful orders in both cases. If found guilty, they face two years in prison and a 40,000 baht (US$1,250) fine.

In southern Thailand, local authorities in Songkhla province denied a request by villagers in Singha Nakhon district to hold a rally on May 24 in protest of the government’s plan to build beach walls and breakwaters on Muang Ngam Beach. Despite an assurance from the organizers to follow social distancing and other Covid-19 measures to keep people safe, officials prohibited the rally.  

“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures to protect people from the pandemic, the government has not offered evidence to justify the extension of its limitless state of emergency,” Adams said. “Extending the emergency will allow Thai authorities to continue to repress contrary views, arrest critics, and ban peaceful rallies for political and not public health reasons.”
 

Costa Rica First in Central America to Legalize Same-Sex

5 hours 49 min ago
Click to expand Image LGBT Rainbow Flag  © 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Alexandra Quiros and Dunia Araya were the first same-sex couple to marry in Costa Rica, as marriage equality became legal in the country.

It took a while. In 2016, Costa Rica requested that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights interpret the right to privacy and the right to equal protection under the American Convention on Human Rights. In a landmark 2017 opinion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that all rights applicable to heterosexual couples should extend to same-sex couples. Then, in 2018, the Costa Rican Constitutional Court followed that opinion and ruled in favor of marriage equality.

This day did not come without a fight. Same-sex marriage divided voters in Costa Rica’s 2018 presidential race, when a right-wing evangelical candidate pledged to ignore the Inter-American opinion. He lost the election, but not without polarizing Costa Rican society. Early this month, lawmakers even came to blows around a legislative motion to delay the constitutional court’s 2018 ruling.

But today is a day for celebration. Costa Rica joins 28 other countries around the world in providing access to marriage for same-sex couples, and advances marriage equality in Latin America, joining Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay. In Mexico, 18 states and the federal district have marriage equality, while in the other 13 states, same-sex couples can marry but need a court injunction.

Costa Rica should serve as an example to its Central American neighbors, where the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain more embattled. In Guatemala, for example, a bill in congress seeks to keep same-sex marriage illegal. In Panama, legislators proposed a constitutional amendment in October 2019 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Beyond Central America, Costa Rica’s path to marriage equality can inspire engagement with human rights law and its institutions. Since its 2016 request to the Inter-American Court, the country has demonstrated a commitment to the spirit of human rights principles in this area and the dignity of its LGBT citizens.  

Philippines: Lasting Harm to Children from ‘Drug War’

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Jennifer M. drew this using pencil and crayon as part of her therapy  for the psychological distress she suffered after witnessing the killing of her father by police officers inside their Quezon City home in December 2016. © 2016 Kiri Dalena for Human Rights Watch

(Manila) – Thousands of children in the Philippines have suffered lasting physical, emotional, and economic harm from President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said in a report and accompanying video released today. Governments at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2020 should support an independent international investigation into the “drug war” killings in the Philippines, including violations against children.

May 21, 2020 “Our Happy Family Is Gone”

The 48-page report, “‘Our Happy Family Is Gone’: Impact of the ‘War on Drugs’ on Children in the Philippines,” details the plight of children whose parents or guardians have been killed. Many children have suffered psychological distress, and all experienced economic hardship made worse by the death of a family breadwinner. The increased poverty and trauma have led many children to leave school or compelled them to work. Some children who lost a family member have faced bullying in their school and community. Some were forced to live on the streets.

“Filipino children have suffered horribly from President Duterte’s decision to unleash the police and their hit men against suspected drug users,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to stop this endless violence that is upending children’s lives and direct assistance to the children harmed.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 people for the report – 10 children; 23 parents, relatives, or guardians; and 16 government officials, nongovernmental organization staff members, and community leaders. Human Rights Watch documented the impact of 23 “drug war” killings on the victims’ families in six cities and provinces, including Metro Manila.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has reported that 5,601 drug suspects died during police anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to January 31, 2020. The police claim these people were killed because they fought back. This number does not include the thousands killed by unidentified gunmen or so-called death squads, many of them linked to the police.

Children’s rights advocates in the Philippines have documented that 101 children were extrajudicially executed or killed as bystanders during anti-drug operations from mid-2016 through 2018. Media reports in 2019 and 2020 show that the killing of children has continued.

The impact of “drug war” violence goes beyond the killings, Human Rights Watch found. Children described the hardships they suffered because of the murder of a loved one. Jennifer M. said she stopped eating, became distressed, and was bullied in school after police killed her father in Quezon City in 2016. “I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn't listen to him,” said Jennifer, who was 12 at the time. The police, she said, shot him in her presence.

The family of Renato A., who was killed in Mandaluyong City in 2016, has faced extreme hardships since his death. His 3 children – ages 13, 10, and 1 at the time of his killing – stopped going to school and have been living in the city’s streets. “I had to work harder when my father died,” said Robert, the eldest, who worked as a garbage collector to support his family. “I became a father to my siblings.”

The absence of government support has worsened the situation for these children, Human Rights Watch said. The Duterte administration does not have a program to address the needs of children left behind by the violence, who are often hesitant to approach government for help because of the stigma of the “drug war.” While the Department of Social Welfare and Development provides the usual assistance, such as shouldering burial expenses, it does not have a significant outreach campaign for these families and their children, leaving any economic and psychosocial or mental health interventions to religious, nongovernmental, and community groups.

In February 2018, the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary examination into the complaints filed against President Duterte related to the “drug war,” prompting the Philippine government to withdraw from the court. In June 2019, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution requesting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a comprehensive report about the human rights situation in the Philippines. The office is expected to present this report to the Human Rights Council during its June session in Geneva.

“The UN Human Rights Council should create an international inquiry and press the Philippine government to end its deadly ‘drug war,’” Conde said. “Without action now, an entire generation of Filipino children will be victimized by the violence of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.”

Please see below for quotes from some of the children, parents, and guardians interviewed.

Jennifer M., daughter of Benigno M., killed in December 2016:

I was confused because I didn’t understand why. Why my papa? Of all the people outside, why did they pick my father? I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn’t listen to him. That’s why I was so angry.

I can’t explain it because with so many being killed here in Payatas, it’s like your mind gets muddled. How else to talk about it? What goes through your mind when you remember what happened? It's like your mind is in disarray.

 

Malou M., Jennifer’s mother:

It’s hard because you don’t know how you’re going to start, how you’re going to fend for your children, how you’re going to send them to school, and how you’re going to pay for their daily expenses and their meals. There are times they can’t go to school because they don’t have school allowance. We lost our tap water because we can’t pay the water bill, and electricity, and many more things.

 

Randy delos Santos, uncle of Kian delos Santos, 17, killed in August 2017:

If not for the CCTV footage, the truth about my nephew’s death may not have been known and there never would have been a case against the policemen.

 

Robert A., whose father was killed in December 2016:

We were out to buy peanuts. My cousin and I saw four men riding two motorcycles without plate numbers, their faces covered, wearing jackets. I tried to chase them, I tried to get ahead of them. I did everything I could to reach my father first, but it was too late. I saw my father being shot.

John [Robert’s brother] was more affected by my father’s death because ever since my father died, I don’t see him happy anymore. If I see him smile, it’s forced. He’s still looking for our father because he was my father’s favorite. He easily gets angry now and he lost trust in people.

I had to work harder when my father died. I became a father to my siblings because I don’t want to see them suffer … so I’m doing everything I can. I force myself to work even if I don’t want to. I force myself for me, for my siblings.

 

Karla A., Robert’s sister:

I was there when it happened, when my papa was shot. I saw everything, how my papa was shot.… Our happy family is gone. We don’t have anyone to call father now. We want to be with him, but we can’t anymore.

Covid-19 Prisoner Releases Too Few, Too Slow

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Inmates sitting in an overcrowded jail in Manila, Philippines, February 2019.  © 2019 Kyodo via AP Images

(New York) – Governments are releasing from jails and prisons far too few people whose continued detention in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic is not justified, Human Rights Watch said today, based on a global media survey. Available data indicates that the virus is spreading rapidly through jails and prisons, putting detainees, staff, and their families at unacceptable risk.

Globally, abusive laws that criminalize non-criminal conduct and policies that prioritize incarceration, including pretrial detention, have led to an unacceptably large global prison population estimated at 11 million. Media, government, and other reports suggest that approximately 580,000 detainees from at least 80 countries have been authorized for release, a mere 5 percent, and many release orders have not been fully carried out.

“Prisoner releases have been too few and too slow, contributing to preventable suffering and death,” said Jo Becker, an advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should urgently accelerate the releases – whether early, temporary, or conditional. Many detainees have not been convicted of any crime, and don’t pose a security risk.”

In the United States, more than 20,000 inmates and 6,400 correctional staff have tested positive for the virus, with over 300 deaths. Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world – more than 80 percent of the prison’s 2,500 inmates have tested positive. Across Latin America, thousands of cases have been confirmed among detained people and prison staff, and at least 160 have died. In Canada, over 60 percent of inmates at a women’s facility near Montreal have tested positive for the virus.

Detainees are often at heightened risk of Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, a high incidence of underlying medical conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. Staff risk exposure and infecting their own families and communities.

In at least 125 countries, prisons are overcrowded, further escalating the danger. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the main prisons are at more than 400 percent of capacity and over 70 percent of detainees have not been convicted, less than 3,000 of 20,000 total detainees have been released. Bolivia has released only 2 detainees out of a prison population of more than 18,000, although the country’s prisons hold more than twice their capacity, and 70 percent of detainees are awaiting trial.

In Indonesia, the government has released at least 36,500 prisoners, but as of April 14, the country still had 260,000 inmates, almost double the 132,000 total capacity. Some detention centers have had coronavirus outbreaks, such as the Jayapura Police Station in Papua, where 11 inmates have tested positive, prompting the prison chief to test his whole staff.

Many governments have been slow to carry out announced releases. In the United Kingdom, where Covid-19 cases have been identified in the majority of prisons, Justice Ministry authorities announced in early April that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for release, but only 57 had been released by May 12. In Australia, New South Wales introduced emergency legislation in late March enabling the government to release prisoners, but as of May 18, no prisoners had been released.

Government release orders have often prioritized older prisoners, low-level offenders, those who have served the majority of their sentence, women, and those in ill health. But the criteria have in many places excluded others who should not necessarily have been detained and could be released without risk to public safety. In Turkey, a law authorizing the release of up to 90,000 prisoners was limited to convicted offenders, arbitrarily excluding a high number of prisoners in pretrial detention or without finalized convictions.

In Bangladesh, 80 percent of the 90,000 detainees have not been tried, yet authorities have authorized the release of fewer than 3,000. In India, where approximately 67 percent of detainees are awaiting or undergoing trial, a high-level committee authorized the release of up to half of all detainees in the state of Maharashtra, but a requirement to post bail will prevent many from securing release. In Nigeria, 70 percent of the country’s prison population are pretrial detainees – an estimated 50,000 people – but as of May 22, only 3,751 prisoners have been released.

Many Latin American countries have a large percentage of detainees awaiting trial – 77 percent in Paraguay, 75 percent in Haiti, 70 percent in Bolivia, and 63 percent in Venezuela.

In Egypt, where authorities have used protracted pretrial detention to keep critics and political opposition figures incarcerated, the authorities have used the Covid-19 pandemic to effectively halt even pro forma detention renewal hearings since mid-March. The likely result is that even fewer of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of pretrial detainees will be released.

Expanding release orders to include all pretrial detainees as eligible, unless their release poses a serious and concrete risk to others, could substantially reduce the prison population in most countries, Human Rights Watch said.

Releases in some countries specifically exclude human rights defenders and others wrongfully imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. In Bahrain, local rights groups estimate that about 400 of the 1,500 detainees released were political prisoners. But the majority of imprisoned human rights defenders, opposition leaders, activists, and journalists – many of them older and/or with underlying medical conditions – remain imprisoned.

Turkey’s law authorizing prisoner releases specifically excluded tens of thousands of prisoners arbitrarily detained or unjustly convicted under anti-terror laws, among them journalists, human rights defenders, elected politicians, lawyers, and others. Those excluded include some prisoners with serious underlying medical issues.

In Belarus, authorities detained an additional 120 peaceful protesters and other critics of the government during May, despite serious health risks to some of them.

In some countries, arrests for violations of curfews, quarantines, or other restrictions linked to the pandemic have added to the detainee population. In Sri Lanka, where prisons are at more than double capacity, approximately 3,000 out of 20,000 prisoners have been released, but approximately 40,000 people have been arrested for curfew violations and in many cases, briefly detained.

In Malaysia, authorities have arrested more than 15,000 people for violating movement control orders, many of whom received jail sentences ranging from two days to several months. In El Salvador, thousands have been arrested and detained for 30 days or more for allegedly violating quarantine orders.

Arresting people for violating Covid-19 emergency measures may increase disease transmission if the authorities place people in crowded detention facilities where the virus could spread easily, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 25, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned governments of “catastrophic consequences” if they neglected prison populations in their Covid-19 response, and urged them to work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention. She called for the release of vulnerable detainees and low-level offenders, among other measures.

The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture also called on governments to “reduce prison populations and other detention populations wherever possible” by utilizing early, provisional, or temporary release for detainees when it is safe to do so.

Human Rights Watch recommends that governments refrain from new custodial arrests, absent an assessment that they pose a serious danger to others. Governments should act urgently to achieve necessary reductions in jail and prison populations, prioritizing for release as eligible:

  • those held for minor offenses
  • those nearing the end of their sentence
  • those jailed for technical violations of probation or parole
  • incarcerated children, older, and otherwise medically vulnerable people, and people who are caregivers to vulnerable people
  • detainees who have not been charged
  • detainees held in pretrial detention, unless they pose a serious and concrete risk to others

The authorities should also ensure that they fully uphold their obligations to those who remain in detention to whom they owe a special duty, as detainees are dependent on them for their health and welfare. Authorities should take urgent steps to prevent or limit the spread of Covid-19 in detention facilities, to protect the physical and mental health of all detainees, and to isolate and treat any detainees who do become infected.

These steps include screening and testing for Covid-19 according to the most recent recommendations of health authorities; providing adequate hygiene, sanitary conditions, and medical services; and reducing density to allow social distancing and to allow placing all who are ill or their close contacts in non-punitive isolation or quarantine, with access to appropriate medical care.

“Governments need to move quickly to avoid disastrous consequences and massive loss of life,” Becker said. “Releasing people who don’t need to be in prison will not only protect incarcerated people, but staff and the broader communities as well.”

Greece Migrant Camps Unfit for Pregnant People

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image A child plays in a temporary tent camp near the camp for migrants in Moria, Lesbos which is overcrowded and lacks adequate hygiene facilities and sanitation, putting migrants, including pregnant people, at particular risk amid Covid-19. Lesbos, Greece 2020. © Angelos Tzortzinis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened already dire conditions for pregnant people in overcrowded reception centers for migrants and asylum seekers on Greek islands.

Highlighting the situation’s urgency, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered Greece to ensure adequate health care and living conditions for one pregnant woman living in Pyli Reception Center on Kos Island.

Pyli and other reception centers remain desperately overcrowded despite the government’s April commitment to transfer some migrants to the mainland. As of May 25, nearly 33,000 people were held in sites with capacity for around 6,000. Pyli holds nearly three times its capacity.  

Even before Covid-19 measures were put in place, the Greek government was not meeting international standards for health care, nutrition, and bedding for migrant pregnant people and new mothers. Heavily pregnant women in Moria Reception Center on Lesbos told me about sleeping in overcrowded tents on ground lined only with thin mats or blankets, struggling to reach toilets over rough terrain, and being returned to these conditions within days of caesarean births.

Reported reallocation of limited maternal health services in the Moria Reception Center due to Covid-19 could be devastating. In certain past disease outbreaks, diversion of reproductive health services contributed to increased maternal deaths.

Since late March, the Greek government has arbitrarily detained newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers on the mainland – including pregnant and other “vulnerable” people – and kept them in lockdown in cramped, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions in reception centers. This flouts public health measures and recommendations for containment of Covid-19. While lifting general lockdown measures, with shops opening and older students returning to classrooms, the government extended lockdown in reception centers until June 7.

Evidence regarding Covid-19 and pregnancy is limited, with much still unknown. While pregnant people don’t appear to be at higher risk, the World Health Organization notes they can be badly affected by some respiratory infections and advises them to take protective measures. This is impossible in reception center conditions.

The Greek government should implement the European Court’s order in Pyli, but also go further to ensure adequate living conditions and health care for all pregnant people in migrant hotspots. It should also ensure decongestion and hygienic conditions for all residents of these sites before it’s too late.

Myanmar: Imagery Shows 200 Buildings Burned

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Satellite imagery recorded on May 23, 2020, shows approximately 70 percent of Let Kar village destroyed by fire. Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch.   Satellite imagery © 2020 Planet Labs

(Yangon) – Satellite imagery shows that about 200 homes and other buildings were destroyed by fire on May 16, 2020, in Myanmar’s embattled Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said today. An impartial investigation is urgently needed to determine responsibility for this mass destruction of residential property in the predominantly ethnic Rakhine village of Let Kar, Mrauk-U township.

Since January 2019, fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army has resulted in numerous civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property. The imagery of Let Kar bears a close resemblance to patterns of fires and widespread arson attacks by the Myanmar military on ethnic Rohingya villages in Rakhine State in 20122016, and 2017, Human Rights Watch said.

“The burning of Let Kar village has all the hallmarks of Myanmar military arson on Rohingya villages in recent years,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “A credible and impartial investigation is urgently needed to find out what happened, punish those responsible, and provide compensation to villagers harmed.”

Satellite imagery recorded on May 16, 2020 at 10:30 a.m. shows no signs of damage in Let Kar. But at 2:12 p.m., an environmental satellite detected extensive fires burning there. The Human Rights Watch damage analysis of 200 buildings burned is most likely an underestimate as internal damage to buildings is not visible.

The satellite imagery is consistent with witness accounts regarding the date and time of the fires and the number of buildings affected. Residents in the neighboring village of Bu Ywat Ma Nyo told the media they saw Myanmar soldiers walk past their village to enter Let Kar around 2 p.m. on May 16 and leave around 5 p.m. The two villages are nearly one kilometer apart. After the soldiers entered Let Kar, Bu Ywat Ma Nyo residents reported hearing gunfire, saw flames and smoke, and observed two aerial drones, one flying above Let Kar and another flying over Bu Ywat Ma Nyo village.

An aid worker from the town of Mrauk-U told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 p.m. on May 16, columns of smoke could be seen coming from the direction of Let Kar, 11 kilometers north. “There was no one living there after the fighting last year as [the residents] had fled, but the older people really have nowhere to go now,” he said. “They had been sheltering in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps in Tein Myo and Bu Ywat Ma Nyo villages and had at least been able to go home and collect their belongings or check their homes from time to time. Now they don’t have anything – it’s very sad.”

A former Let Kar resident who still lives nearby told a local source that he went to view the damage himself on May 17. He said he and his companions encountered about 50 Myanmar troops on the road as they travelled from Mrauk-U to Let Kar by motorbike, but the soldiers did not stop them. He said he counted at least 194 buildings that had been burned down, including his own home, and a school.

A Rakhine State regional member of parliament, Tun Thar Sein, confirmed that a military contingent had been in the area. “We will urge the union government for compensation and aid to be provided to the residents of Let Kar,” he said.

On May 17, Myanmar’s military released a statement that its troops had entered Let Kar the previous afternoon while patrolling the area and were attacked by the Arakan Army. It also issued an aerial view image of burning buildings in Let Kar, presumably taken by a drone. The military accused the Arakan Army of setting the fires and damaging at least 20 houses before retreating into the mountains.

On May 19, the Arakan Army issued a statement denying the allegations. A spokesperson, Khine Thuka, urged the media to investigate.

Most residents abandoned Let Kar more than a year ago, when fighting intensified. On April 10, 2019, the military raided Let Kar and detained 27 men for questioning about alleged ties to the Arakan Army. By April 22, three of the men had died in custody, attributed to “heart failure” by the military-owned Myawaddy newspaper. No autopsies were performed because the security forces swiftly cremated the bodies. The authorities contested allegations that the men were tortured but refused to investigate the deaths. The 24 others, two of whom are minors, remain detained in Sittwe.

On March 22, fighting resulted in more than 500 homes being burned in Tin Ma village, Kyauktaw township. The military denied responsibility. The Rakhine State government in April provided US$62,000 in compensation to residents, according to Development Media Group.

Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, attacks on civilians and civilian objects, such as homes, are prohibited. The wanton destruction of civilian property is a war crime. Myanmar has an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes and appropriately prosecute those responsible regardless of rank. The Myanmar government is obligated to provide compensation for any wrongful acts and should consider ex gratia or “condolence” payments for other civilian harm.

“Myanmar’s government should not leave the investigation of this incident to the military, which has repeatedly covered up atrocities and exonerated its troops,” Robertson said. “To ensure a credible investigation, the government should request UN assistance.”

Two Years in Prison for Gay Sex in Turkmenistan

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image A screen showing a portrait of Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov inside the terminal of the newly built airport in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 17, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

In Turkmenistan, men who have sex with men continue to be arrested and imprisoned on sodomy charges.

In mid-March independent media in the region reported the arrest of a popular entertainer as well as those of numerous other men who move in Turkmenistan’s show-business world. Some were able to secure their release. On May 7, a Turkmen court sentenced the entertainer, and several others to two years’ imprisonment on sodomy charges.

Turkmenistan is one of sixty-nine countries in the world that outlaw consensual sexual intercourse between men. Article 135 of the criminal code stipulates penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment for sodomy and 5 to 10 years if repeated. This blatantly discriminatory law, that violates Turkmenistan’s international human rights obligations, enables police to subject gay and bisexual men to harassment, including with the purpose of extortion, humiliation, and abuse.

Human Rights Watch documented a 2013 case in Turkmenistan, where medical staff collaborated with law enforcement officials to conduct an anal exam on an 18-year-old man accused of homosexual conduct. While not evidence of a pattern, the case raises the possibility that forced anal examinations have been or are being used against others charged with sodomy in Turkmenistan.

Such examinations have no medical justification, are cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and may amount to torture. They violate the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by Turkmenistan.

Last year, in an extremely rare headline-grabbing instance, a gay man came out publicly despite hostile social attitudes and bullying by his family. He went missing after he came out, and then briefly resurfaced in the media before going silent again.

In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee flagged criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct as “unjustifiable” and urged the Turkmen government to repeal it. Turkmenistan prides itself on its good standing in the United Nations. The government should immediately dismiss all charges against the men convicted under these laws and release them.

Turkmenistan should also repeal article 135 of the criminal code and protect people from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s Time to Treat Cybersecurity as a Human Rights Issue

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Heads of state and their representatives take part in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the situation in the Middle East during the General Assembly for the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 21, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace, sophisticated, and severe. As Covid-19 forced millions of people’s lives online, a stable and secure internet is essential to the functioning of societies.

Fortuitously, the UN Security Council held its second-ever informal meeting on cybersecurity, led by Estonia, on Friday. The discussion focused on cyber challenges to international peace, but human rights inched their way into the discussion too.

Fundamental rights are at stake when governments engage in cyberattacks, like when Russia shut down the internet, as it did
 in Crimea in 2016 and in Ingushetia in 2018, or when a government hacks into a dissident or journalist’s phone, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly done.
 

Internet shutdowns deny people access to critical information, the ability to express themselves, work, learn, and access social services. Government hacking infringes on privacy and can lead to other rights violations, in particular for human rights activists and journalists. Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor was imprisoned and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was executed after their governments gathered information on their activities through hacking. Governments like China and Vietnam use cybersecurity as an excuse to exercise more control over the internet and further restrict rights.

At Friday’s debate, at least a dozen countries referenced the importance of human rights. Estonia expressed its “support [for] an open, free and stable cyberspace where the rule of law fully applies, and human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected.” This position was echoed by a number of EU member states - including Belgium and the Netherlands - Ecuador, Japan, Switzerland, and others. Eritrea and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines raised concerns about the spread of disinformation online and the need to reform the prevailing surveillance-based business models of companies in order to safeguard elections. A handful of States, including Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Ireland, and Italy recognized gender dimensions of cybersecurity.

Noticeably silent on rights were the two cyber heavyweights: the US, which didn’t address the issue, and Russia, which didn’t participate in the meeting.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that “new technologies are too often used to violate rights.” Often this happens in the name of, or due to a lack of, cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a human rights issue. It’s time more governments start treating it like one.  

Venezuela: Urgent Aid Needed to Combat Covid-19

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

(Washington, DC) – The Venezuelan healthcare system is grossly unprepared for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, further jeopardizing the health of Venezuelans and threatening to contribute to regional spread of the disease, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said today. Ensuring that sufficient humanitarian aid reaches the Venezuelan people is urgently needed.

As of May 25, 2020, Venezuela had 1,121 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 10 deaths. The real number is almost certainly much higher, given the limited availability of reliable testing, limited transparency, and the persecution of medical professionals and journalists who report on this issue. Overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, as well as generalized limited access to water in hospitals and homes, makes it likely that the new coronavirus will rapidly spread within the country. The massive exodus of Venezuelans, and the migration back and forth across Venezuela’s borders due to the pandemic, increases the risk of the virus spreading further.

“The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the breakdown of the health system have created dangerous conditions conducive to rapid community spread, unsafe working conditions for health personnel, and high mortality rate among patients in need of hospital treatment,” said Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Centers. “Venezuela’s lack of capacity to confront the Covid-19 pandemic may drive people to try to leave the country, further straining the health systems of neighboring countries and imperiling regional health more broadly.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock should lead efforts to address this issue. Members of the Lima Group, the United States, and the European Union should press Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro to immediately open doors to a full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response to prevent catastrophic spread of Covid-19 in the country, Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said. It is critically important for foreign governments to depoliticize aid and for the US government to ensure that existing sanctions do not contribute to the crisis or hinder humanitarian efforts.

Venezuela’s health system has collapsed. Shortages of medications and health supplies, interruptions of basic utilities at healthcare facilities, and the emigration of healthcare workers have led to a progressive decline in healthcare operational capacity. At 180 out of 195, Venezuela ranks among the countries least prepared to mitigate the spread of an epidemic in the 2019 Global Health Security Index.

In November and December 2019, a team from Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers conducted in-depth interviews by phone with healthcare providers in 14 public hospitals in Caracas, the capital, and five states – Anzoátegui, Barinas, Bolívar, Lara, and Zulia. All but one of the hospitals provided high-complexity care. The groups also conducted follow-up interviews with some health professionals, humanitarian actors, and experts on sanctions in March, April, and May 2020.

Although the bulk of the research was conducted before the pandemic hit, the findings give strong reason for concern that the healthcare system is not only failing, but failing in ways that make it particularly ill-equipped to cope with Covid-19, especially due to routine water shortages and sanitation and hygiene failures. Developments in the country through May 2020 give further cause for concern.

The doctors and nurses interviewed said that soap and disinfectants are virtually nonexistent in their clinics and hospitals. As inflation has risen and salaries have been devalued, it has become increasingly difficult for them to bring in their own supplies. The Caracas hospitals experience regular water shortages. In remote hospitals, water shortages have lasted weeks to months. Patients and personnel are required to bring their own water for drinking, for scrubbing up before and after medical procedures, for cleaning surgical supplies, and sometimes for flushing toilets.

In a survey of healthcare providers that measured the Venezuelan healthcare system’s capacity to confront Covid-19, 31.8 percent of hospital workers reported that their hospitals lacked potable water and 64.2 percent reported intermittent access to potable water between February 27 and March 1, 2020. On May 21, a union leader reported that a survey in 16 hospitals and health centers in Caracas revealed shortages of water in 8, gloves in 7, and of soap and disinfectant in 15. Eight hospitals and health centers also lacked face masks, and 13 were reusing them. Another national survey on the impact of Covid-19 published on May 16 reported there were shortages of gloves in 57.14 percent of the health sector, face masks in 61.9 percent, soap in 76.19 percent, and alcohol gel in 90.48 percent.

The mortality rate for Covid-19 is uncertain and likely to vary according to age, underlying health conditions, and availability of treatment, among other factors. The death rate will most likely be higher than average in Venezuela, where there is no capacity for complex care due to a lack of basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, intensive care beds, and respirators, and where healthcare providers’ lack of access to water prevents them from washing their hands, which is vital to limiting the spread of Covid-19. Fuel shortages are increasing the difficulty for both health professionals and patients to get to hospitals and clinics, and for food to reach people in need, which could further undermine health care.

The disease also could be transmitted quickly in the community and in overcrowded prisons in the absence of basic public health protections and access to sufficient water. Infectious diseases thrive under the poverty conditions, crowded living arrangements, and malnutrition that many Venezuelans face.

The humanitarian, political, and economic crisis in Venezuela has led to the largest migration in the region in recent decades. More than five million Venezuelans have left the country, taking with them diseases that had been eradicated in the region, such as measles. The health systems of neighboring countries are already strained trying to meet the health needs of Venezuelan exiles. Although a few thousand Venezuelans have recently decided to return to Venezuela due to dire conditions in receiving countries, the exodus is unlikely to stop and the coronavirus outbreak in Venezuela will only make things worse.

Venezuelan authorities have adopted some belated measures to, in theory, attempt to respond to the pandemic. The government declared a state of emergency on March 13 and instituted a nationwide quarantine on March 17, which restricts movement and mandates closing all but essential businesses. It is enforced by police, the Armed Forces, a special police force called FAES, and armed pro-government gangs, leading to arbitrary arrests and harassment, local groups said. On March 17, the Nicolás Maduro government requested an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to combat Covid-19, which the IMF rejected, stating there was “no clarity” regarding the Maduro government’s “official government recognition by the international community.”

The Venezuelan authorities’ response is severely undermined by their failure to publish epidemiological data, which is critical to address a pandemic; their harassment and persecution of journalists, health professionals, and others who raise awareness about deteriorating conditions in hospitals, gas shortages, and the spread of Covid-19; and their unwillingness to assume any responsibility for contributing to or failing to address the health system’s breakdown, which they blame entirely on US sanctions even though the breakdown predates the sanctions.

“Foreign governments should contribute to Venezuela’s Covid-19 response by funding UN humanitarian efforts to ensure the aid is distributed apolitically,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “However, for aid to effectively reach the Venezuelan people, the primary responsibility lies on Venezuelan authorities under Maduro, who need to ensure full access to the World Food Programme and allow humanitarian and health workers to work without fear of reprisals.”

For detailed recommendations and additional information about water shortages, sanctions, and humanitarian aid, please see below.

Recommendations

Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health experts urge UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock to lead efforts to address the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and to request that the Maduro government adopt all necessary measures, including those in this publication, to ensure that aid effectively reaches the Venezuelan people.

The Lima Group members, the US, and the European Union, as well as other countries with demonstrated influence over Venezuelan authorities, should press them to:

  • Open Venezuela’s doors to a full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response that reaches the interior of the country, specifically by allowing full access to the UN World Food Programme and its partners, which have the logistical capacity to provide a significant amount of humanitarian aid nationwide;
  • Enable local and international humanitarian workers to provide humanitarian aid and have access to all hospitals and other healthcare centers so that they can provide supplies and assistance;
  • Allow healthcare professionals and humanitarian workers to carry out their work without reprisals, and ensure they can move freely throughout Venezuela despite quarantine restrictions by issuing and respecting special permits and by prioritizing their access to gasoline; and
  • Allow independent experts to review and publish all available epidemiological data to increase transparency about the extent of the humanitarian emergency by reporting accurate counts of Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths and by resuming regular publication of detailed mortality and morbidity reports.

All governments should fund UN-led humanitarian efforts that comply with the UN standards of humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality in the provision of assistance.

Given the risk of overcompliance with US financial sanctions and sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, as well as Venezuelans’ need for resources to address the humanitarian emergency, the US government should:

  • Clearly state again that no one will be penalized for financing or supplying humanitarian aid to Venezuela in this time of a public health crisis, and repeat that humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions;
  • Limit overcompliance, including by publicly providing concrete avenues for companies and organizations to channel humanitarian aid into Venezuela without excessive bureaucratic scrutiny or delays; and
  • Actively support a robust UN-led humanitarian effort in Venezuela.

Limited Access to Water in Hospitals

The rights to water and sanitation are essential components of the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably linked to the right to health. The United Nations has emphasized that the right to water requires that water be sufficient and continuous, safe and acceptable, physically accessible and within safe reach, and affordable to all. In particular, the World Health Organization has noted that safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions are key to protecting human health during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across Venezuela, households and hospitals have limited access to water. According to a World Food Programme study, 25 percent of Venezuelan households lacked sustainable access to potable water and 4 in 10 households experienced daily interruptions in their water supply between July and September 2019.

The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela, published and carried out in the last half of 2019, estimated that 4.3 million people needed water, sanitation, and hygiene services. During the same period, the UN response plan was able to provide safe water to 310,598 people – .07 percent of the estimated need. The response plan targeted 3,719 health and education facilities during this period but reached only 253, or 7 percent; only 44 of the targeted institutions, or 1.2 percent, were hospitals or health centers.

Hospitals in Venezuela have had limited access to water since 2014 and the problem has grown more acute over the years, health professionals interviewed said. According to Doctors for Health, a nationwide network of doctors, the percentage of Venezuelan public hospitals with intermittent access to water rose to 69 percent in 2016, from 28 percent in 2014. In 2019, 70 percent reported intermittent access to water and 20 percent reported no access to water.

One person interviewed said that in their hospital access to running water varies, with water cuts sometimes lasting for an entire weekend and at other times lasting as long as five days. Another interviewee said that the government rations the water in their hospital, with access only for an hour or two twice a week. In more remote hospitals, water shortages are worse.

In large cities, water trucks bring limited amounts of water to hospitals, but it is insufficient, the health professionals said. One hospital that needs 30 trucks for a day’s operations, for example, received only 4 or 5.

Even when hospitals have access to some water, its quality is poor. The water brought by the trucks is not potable. Running water is not adequately treated and there is no way to filter or boil it in hospitals since the kitchens in many hospitals are not operational, so it is risky for hospitals to rely on it. In addition, the hospitals’ methods of collecting and storing water create contamination risks. The wells, under- and aboveground water storage tanks, and barrels used in some hospitals are – due to lack of maintenance, lack of covers, or simple unsuitability – inadequate to preserve a quality water supply.

Impact of Water Shortages on Patient Care

An immediate consequence of hospitals’ limited access to water is that healthcare workers are unable to wash their hands, which they are supposed to do before and after touching a patient. Venezuelan healthcare workers do their best to keep their hands clean, which in one neonatal unit took the form of washing their hands with condensation that fell from the air conditioner.

The lack of water, especially as it prevents hand-washing, contributes to high rates of nosocomial infections, that is, infections that originate within a hospital. These infections in Venezuela have included bacteremia, fistula infections, and pulmonary infections, and are now likely to include Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University members of the research team. Similarly, in 2018, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed that “[l]ack of water and hygiene supplies were ... causing pervasive infection problems” in Venezuela. The lack of water has also resulted in a lack of laundry service at hospitals, and healthcare workers risk bringing infections home if they mix their clothing with the clothing of their family members in the wash.

Difficulties in accessing quality water also have led medical procedures such as dialysis and surgery to be cancelled. Five healthcare providers said that dialysis patients were among those most affected by lack of water and contaminated water, and two noted drastic reductions in the number of operational dialysis machines at their hospitals due to contamination of water: from 14 machines down to 9 in one hospital and from 35 to 15 in the other. With the arrival of Covid-19 and the accompanying quarantine, patients have faced increased difficulties accessing dialysis due to gasoline shortages, blocked roads, and limitations on their movement between cities.

One hospital had, only two weeks before the interview, cancelled all scheduled surgery for a week due to the lack of water and for four additional days due to contamination of the operating room. Meanwhile, the OHCHR noted that the inability of doctors in the Venezuelan state of Zulia to perform more than a few surgeries a week, due to a combination of water shortages, energy shortages, and operating-room contamination, has led to six-month waiting lists.

Hospitals have also been partially closed because of water shortages. One doctor said her hospital’s capacity was reduced from 79 beds to 5 due in part to the lack of water. Another doctor said that limited access to water had reduced her hospital’s five or six operating rooms to two. Four hospitals have closed their labs.

One hospital reduced its services so drastically that its status changed from a level 4 medical institution to a level 1 institution – from offering the most healthcare services to the least. The hospital also abandoned its radiology section. “It is nothing more than a hallway with a waiting room where nobody is waiting,” one doctor said.

Due to general rationing of services, hospitals also prioritize certain services, such as the emergency room, and certain patients, and turn others, such as the elderly, away to die at home. Since there are water shortages throughout the country, transferring the patients to a hospital with water is not an option, several doctors said.

Even when water shortages do not prevent healthcare workers from providing services, they contribute to an unsanitary and unhygienic environment. Hospitals cannot be cleaned regularly or thoroughly due to the lack of water and cleaning materials. One hospital had to close half a floor due to unsanitary conditions. Another hospital that used to be cleaned four times every 24 hours is now cleaned half as frequently and with very little water. People interviewed reported nauseating odors, rodent infestations, and broken-down bathrooms. Two interviewees could attend only a fraction of their patients after the building where they worked closed due to sewage problems in 2018.

One hospital’s bathrooms, although closed for lack of water, were still used. Another hospital’s patients urinated and defecated outdoors instead, resulting in a noxious environment surrounding the hospital. At another hospital, in which staff, patients, and even family members urinated and defecated into makeshift containers and then disposed of the waste outside, the doctors requested portable restrooms, but the request was never filled. “It is Dante-esque,” one doctor said, “as though we are in a war but not a single bomb has fallen.”

Response of Healthcare Providers, Patients, Families

Some healthcare providers buy alcohol gel for hand hygiene themselves. A bottle costs US$3 to $5 at the unofficial exchange rate at the time of the interviews, an enormous expense considering that the monthly salaries of doctors ranged from approximately $6 to $15 then. Some also occasionally bring bottled water, soap, or toilet paper to the hospital. But many do not have the means to buy even the alcohol gel, especially nurses, who earned about $3 a month at the time of the interviews.

Many patients are also forced to take on part of the burden of promoting a hygienic environment. Patients or family members bring water for the patient to drink, for medical procedures, and even to clean the bathrooms and flush the toilets. In one major hospital, patients had to bring 25 liters of water to be admitted. In another, if the patient or the patient’s family does not provide water, their surgery is cancelled. As the OHCHR observed in its 2019 report on Venezuela, “[F]amilies of patients have to provide all necessities, including water, gloves, and syringes.”

One healthcare provider estimated that only 25 percent of patients could afford to bring water. Even for those who can afford water and the additional items required for surgery, the time taken to gather all that is needed can make the patient’s condition worse, leading to a greater likelihood of complications and prolonging recovery.

Government Neglect

The Venezuelan government’s primary response to hospitals’ lack of water has been neglect. Several people interviewed said that for years the government has done nothing to improve the deteriorating conditions in their hospitals. During the only instance they could recall in which the Venezuelan government acknowledged the deterioration of a hospital and resolved to fix it, the government worked on the building for only one month before abandoning the project. A union representative said that government intervention in another hospital did not respond to healthcare workers’ demands for water and other necessities but instead “[A]ll they have done is fix a few lamps.”

Of the three projects targeting hospitals listed on the Water Ministry’s website, two provided a limited number of aboveground water storage tanks to the states of Vargas and Zulia, failing to address the root of the problem: the lack of a continuous supply of high-quality water. In June 2019, construction began on a third project that would increase water services at Hospital Universitario Antoni Patricio Alcalá (Huapa), but, as of March 11, this hospital still did not have a consistent water supply and had no access to potable water. Nevertheless, the Maduro government designated Huapa one of 46 hospitals and health centers for Covid-19 patients.

These isolated and half-hearted attempts to provide water to hospitals fall far short of the government’s obligation to ensure Venezuelans’ right to health, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Centers said. The government should open its doors to humanitarian aid to improve its water system infrastructure, which has been operating at half its capacity in part due to corruption and lack of maintenance. It should also address widespread electricity shortages, which make it impossible for water systems to function properly; it should ensure that wells in the hospitals that have them are again fully operational; and it should frequently test the quality of water reaching Venezuelan hospitals and households.

Lack of Official Data; Limited Testing

Venezuelan authorities have suppressed or else failed to collect public health data that would reveal the extent of the crisis. Until 2014, when health indicators started deteriorating, Venezuela had a robust epidemiologic surveillance infrastructure that published regular and detailed morbidity and mortality reports. Then came two years of silence. In 2017, the then-health minister published data showing that infant mortality had increased by 30.12 percent and maternal mortality by 65.79 percent in 2016. She was promptly fired.

Since then, the government has not released its epidemiological data. Some doctors interviewed said that the government had also prohibited them from listing certain causes of death such as malnutrition and had forced doctors who went public with mortality data to resign.

The Venezuelan government has suppressed public health information regarding Covid-19. On March 17, the opposition-led National Assembly announced that it had created a Covid-19 awareness website, coronavirusvenezuela.info. On March 18, Venezuela Sin Filtro, a nongovernmental organization, reported that state-owned Internet provider CANTV had blocked the website and that private Internet providers had also limited access to the website indirectly by blocking another website linked to the opposition. A National Assembly representative confirmed this information to Human Rights Watch.

The authorities also have reportedly banned Covid-19 testing in a private clinic in Caracas and confiscated the results there, saying that only an official entity should conduct them. As of May 21, Venezuelan authorities claim to have conducted 697,691 tests, of which at least 16,577 were PCR tests. The vast majority are thus rapid tests that may result in false negatives during the first  days after becoming infected.

Harassment and Persecution of Healthcare Workers, Journalists

Several people interviewed said that government authorities and supporters had harassed them or other health professionals or activists they knew after they had openly questioned the government’s response to the health emergency. Health professionals said they were threatened, followed, and photographed, sometimes by intelligence agents. Some doctors who participated in protests said the authorities detained and prohibited them from speaking publicly about healthcare conditions.

Government authorities have also harassed healthcare professionals who publicize information about Covid-19. On March 9, the Zulia governor announced that he would order an investigation of Freddy Pachano, a doctor at the University of Zulia, for tweeting about possible Covid-19 cases at the Hospital Universitario de Maracaibo. The governor said that if Pachano had sounded the alarm in error he would have him prosecuted.

The Foro Penal Venezolano, a network of criminal lawyers and activists that provides pro-bono legal support to people who are arbitrarily detained, reported a sharp increase in arbitrary detentions since the government declared a state of emergency on March 13, including of healthcare workers and journalists who questioned Venezuelan authorities’ response to Covid-19. Foro Penal Venezolano has also reported arbitrary arrests of political opponents and others during this time. Espacio Público, a nongovernmental organization that monitors free speech in Venezuela, documented 40 cases of people detained for criticizing the government’s response to Covid-19 as of May 16, including 17 media workers. The National Press Workers Union documented 22 arbitrary arrests and 21 instances of harassment and/or intimidation of journalists between March 16 and May 3.

On March 21, the Venezuelan special police force FAES arrested Darvinson Rojas, a journalist, after he reported on possible Covid-19 cases. The police also detained Rojas’s parents, injuring his father. Rojas’s parents were released later that night. On March 23, Rojas was charged with incitement to hatred and incitement of the public. He was conditionally released on April 2, but remains under criminal prosecution.

On March 23, the Venezuelan newspaper La Verdad de Vargas reported that a nurse had tested positive for Covid-19. On March 24, the public prosecutor’s office subpoenaed the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Beatriz Rodríguez, as a witness in a criminal investigation of La Verdad de Vargas for alleged terrorism.

Also on March 24, FAES detained Rosalí Hernández, a journalist, as she gathered information on disinfection efforts in Catia. FAES held Hernández for 40 minutes, forcing her to delete the material she had recorded.

Venezuelan authorities have also detained healthcare workers who protest how hospitals’ shortages of water and supplies have left them unable to respond to Covid-19 effectively.

On March 17, military intelligence detained Rubén Duarte, a nurse at Hospital Central de San Cristóbal, after he demanded water, masks, gloves, and other necessities. They held him overnight.

The National Bolivarian Guard detained Julio Molino, a doctor in Monagas, on March 17 after Molino called attention to the inability of Hospital Manuel Núñez Tovar to attend to Covid-19 patients. On March 19, Molino was charged with incitement to hatred, causing panic in the community, and illegal association and placed under house arrest. Venezuelan authorities also sought to detain two of Molino’s colleagues, Carlos Carmona and Maglis Mendoza. When they could not find the two, they instead arrested Mendoza’s 17-year-old granddaughter and her 16-year-old friend and held them until late at night.

Sanctions and Humanitarian Aid

The United States imposed financial sanctions, including a ban on dealings in new stocks and bonds issued by the Venezuelan government and Petróleos de Venezuela, Sociedad Anónima, or PDVSA, its state oil company, in August 2017. They explicitly exclude humanitarian transactions. The sanctions were expanded in January 2019, but maintain the humanitarian exception.

Despite the humanitarian exception, these sanctions could exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Venezuela, both due to the risk of overcompliance and because the sanctions reduce the resources available to the government to address the crisis. The extent to which the sanctions are in fact having this impact, and whether the government would have used any additional resources to help its people, is unclear. But the United States should promptly take sufficient steps to prevent negative impacts from the sanctions on the humanitarian situation, Human Rights Watch said.

One humanitarian actor told Human Rights Watch that some humanitarian transactions to Venezuela have been delayed due to overcompliance, and experts on sanctions say that overcompliance with these types of sanctions is generally a problem.

While not dismissing the potential negative impact that sanctions are having on Venezuela’s health system, it is important to note that Human Rights Watch research indicates that Venezuela’s health system collapse predates the sanctions. Likewise, imports of food and medicines decreased prior to the imposition of the sanctions, according to leading economists interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

However, in an oil-dependent economy like Venezuela’s, the rapid decrease in oil revenue since 2017 has limited the availability of government resources, according to several sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Experts have provided different and sometimes conflicting explanations for the decrease in revenue, including sanctions and mismanagement. The price of oil, which reached its lowest level in years in March, also affects revenue.

There is no guarantee that Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro, who have contributed to the health system’s collapse, have been implicated in high-level corruption, and have used oil revenues to, for example, shrink PDVSA’s $6.5 billion debt with the Russian state oil company Rosneft, would have used oil revenue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people, Human Rights Watch said.

Although still very limited compared to the magnitude of the need, the number of humanitarian organizations operating in-country and the amount of aid reaching Venezuela has increased in recent months. According to the latest situation report on Venezuela from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela – the first for the country – received $75.9 million, or 34 percent, of the $223 million it required. The UN Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 estimated that $750 million would be needed for a 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela, $72.1 million of which would be set aside for Covid-19 response under the new UN plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These efforts remain underfunded. A special appeal made in April to deal with Covid-19 in Venezuela called for 61 million dollars for three months; it has received 14 million. Foreign governments could help to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela by funding these efforts, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Centers said.

The United States, the European Union, Canada, and some Latin American governments have also imposed unrelated, targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials and members of security forces implicated in human rights violations, corruption, or drug trafficking. These targeted sanctions do not appear to have impacted the humanitarian situation in the country, though the sanctioning governments should remain vigilant to ensure that remains the case. 

 

WHO Should Intervene to End Internet Shutdowns amid Pandemic

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image A man on his mobile phone in Srinagar, Kashmir, January 30, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

(Geneva) – The World Health Organization (WHO) should press four governments that have shut down the internet to minority populations during the Covid-19 crisis to restore internet access, Human Rights Watch and 47 other organizations said today.

As part of the KeepItOn Coalition, the groups asked WHO Director-General Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab to urge the governments of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan to restore full access to the internet.

#KeepItOn: Joint Civil Society Letter to WHO Re: Ending Government-Ordered Internet Shutdowns #KeepItOn: Joint Civil Society Letter to WHO Re: Ending Government-Ordered Internet Shutdowns

New Database Threatens Right to Privacy in Russia

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image FILE: A Russian state flag waves on top of a hammer and sickle at the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 © AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

A new law for creating a “uniform federal database” in Russia infringes on the right to privacy and weakens protection of personal data for everyone living in the country. Parliament’s lower chamber adopted the draft law on May 21 and it will enter into force once endorsed by the upper chamber and the president.

The federal database, which is set to be fully functional by 2025, would contain personal data of the entire population of Russia, including birth certificates, passport details, marital status, any change of gender, education, residence permits abroad, employment, and taxpayers’ information. References to parents’ and children’s profiles would also be included.

The database would be run by the Federal Tax Service, and other government agencies would feed into it. The data could be shared with election commissions, courts, prosecutors, and other law enforcement. According to the legislators, the draft law aims at ensuring reliability and consistency of data countrywide.

Russian law ‘on personal data’ prohibits merging databases collected for different purposes. It also forbids excessive collection and storage of data – meaning anything collected must be directly related to what the data will be used for. These principles echo the Council of Europe’s Convention 108+ for the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data, which Russia is a party.

The head of Federal Tax Service noted that the unified database would allow the creation of “an ideal golden profile” for everyone, which could be used, among other things, for making decisions regarding allocation of social benefits by calculating family income based on information from relevant profiles. According to the Convention 108+, however, every individual has a right not to be subject to a decision significantly affecting them based solely on automated processing of data.

The uniform database concept allows the government to store excessive amounts of data indefinitely as well as share it with governmental agencies without a person’s explicit consent. It also jeopardizes security of personal data, gathering it all in one place rather than storing it in a decentralized way.

Proposing a system that runs contrary to the data protection principles enshrined both in national legislation and international agreements Russia is a party to, the law on “uniform federal database” can do more harm than good.

Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Attack Education

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Students sit crammed up to five at desks meant for two, in overcrowded classes of up to 125 students, at a primary school in Kaya, a town hosting tens of thousands of displaced people in Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso. January 29, 2020. © 2020 Lauren Seibert/Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Increasing armed Islamist group attacks on teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso since 2017 have had a devastating impact on children’s access to education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 102-page report, “‘Their War Against Education’: Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso,” documents scores of education-related attacks by armed Islamist groups in 6 of the country’s 13 regions between 2017 and 2020. The groups have killed, beaten, abducted, and threatened education professionals; intimidated students; terrorized parents into keeping children out of school; and damaged, destroyed, and looted schools.

“Armed Islamist groups targeting teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso are not only committing war crimes, but are undoing years of progress in improving children’s access to education,” said Lauren Seibert, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burkinabè government should investigate these attacks, ensure children regain access to schooling, and provide needed support to education workers who experienced attacks.”

May 26, 2020 “Their War Against Education”

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 170 people between December 2019 and April 2020, including 74 education professionals, 35 current and former students, and other witnesses to attacks, parents of students, victims’ family members, community leaders, aid workers, experts, and government officials.

Armed Islamist groups allied with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State began attacking teachers and schools in Burkina Faso in 2017, citing their opposition to “French,” Western-style education and government institutions. The attacks have increased every year since.

Human Rights Watch documented 126 attacks and armed threats against education professionals, students, and schools, with more than half the attacks in 2019. At least 12 education professionals were killed and 17 assaulted or abducted in the documented attacks, with many others forcibly detained and threatened.

Teachers and school administrators described being chained, tied, blindfolded, and beaten, with their belongings stolen or burned. Those killed include five teachers shot at a primary school; a teacher and a principal shot at home; four teachers and administrators abducted and killed, including two beheaded; and a retired volunteer teacher gunned down as he tutored children.

In a May 2020 letter to Human Rights Watch, the education ministry reported that at least 222 education workers had been “victims of terrorist attacks” as of late April.

While armed Islamists have not appeared to target children for violence during school attacks, they often fired shots in the air to terrify students and teachers. “I was really scared. We thought they were coming to kill us,” a student recalled. A 14-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet during a school attack in 2018. Seven students returning from school break were among the 14 people killed when an explosive device detonated under their bus in January 2020.

May 26, 2020 Witness: Waging War on Burkina Faso’s Schools

A Survivor Tells How Armed Islamists Attacked Students and Colleagues

Armed men damaged or pillaged schools in at least 84 of the documented cases, including by burning school infrastructure and academic materials, setting off explosives, shooting at schools, and plundering supplies from canteen storerooms.

Before the Burkinabè government closed all schools nationwide in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2,500 schools had already closed due to attacks or insecurity, depriving nearly 350,000 students of access to education.

“All the schools here are closed [because of attacks and insecurity],” said an education professional in Namssiguia village, Centre-Nord region, in February. “We pray the situation will improve so the children can go back to school, because they are suffering.”

Violence by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso – and, in response, by self-defense militias and government security forces – has steadily increased since the emergence of the Burkinabè armed Islamist group Ansaroul Islam in 2016. A surge in attacks in 2019 continued into 2020, displacing over 830,000 people from their homes.

Between mid-2017 and mid-2019, the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger witnessed a six-fold increase in school closures due to attacks and insecurity. By early 2020, Burkina Faso had more such school closures than Mali (1,261) and Niger (354) combined.

The use of schools for military purposes, such as converting them into military bases, also puts education infrastructure at risk. Human Rights Watch documented the use of ten schools by Burkinabè security forces and six by armed Islamist groups, as well as armed Islamist attacks on four schools during or directly after their occupation by the Burkinabè military.

The attacks have had far-reaching consequences for students and teachers, including trauma and mental health issues, school withdrawals, dangers for children traveling to access new schools, and, among out-of-school children, increased child labor and risks of child marriage for girls.

In 2017, Burkina Faso endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a political agreement committing countries to prevent and respond to attacks on students, teachers, and schools. The government has since taken several positive steps, such as reopening closed schools, redeploying teachers, and creating a national strategy and technical secretariat on education in emergencies. Recently, the government expanded distance-learning programs – previously implemented in some conflict-affected regions – to national radio and television, as part of its Covid-19 education response.

However, the government should urgently address gaps in its response to education-related attacks. It should ensure timely psychosocial and financial support to victims, increase support to overcrowded “host schools” accepting displaced students, expand “education-in-emergencies” programs to reach more children affected by conflict, improve school security in conflict zones, and restrict military use of schools. Those responsible for attacks should be investigated for war crimes and appropriately prosecuted.

Donor governments should consider supporting education-in-emergencies programs and victim rehabilitation, including psychosocial care for teachers and students who experienced attacks.

“In their brutal assault against education, armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have cost teachers their lives, livelihoods, and physical and mental health, and they are costing hundreds of thousands of children their futures,” Seibert said. “These attacks need to stop.”

Primary school girls lie on the floor of their classroom during an emergency attack simulation in Dori, Sahel region, Burkina Faso, February 3, 2020. By early March 2020, over 2,500 schools had closed in Burkina Faso due to the armed conflict. © 2020 Olympia De Maismont/Getty Images A child views the damage at Sillaléba village primary school in Nasséré commune, Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso, after an attack in April 2019. Attackers started fires in three classrooms, burned school materials, damaged five motorcycles, and stole three motorcycles and a computer. “We returned to try and put out the fire, because the desks were still burning—but I wasn’t able to save a single class document,” a teacher said.   © 2019 Harouna Sawadogo Images from a video circulated on social media in early 2019 depict the burning of a school by armed Islamists in Burkina Faso. Assailants in the video “identified themselves as ‘soldiers of the Islamic State in Burkina Faso and Mali,’” according to the security research group MENASTREAM. Satellite analysis by the security research group MENASTREAM (at left) suggests that images from a video depicting armed Islamists burning a school, circulated in 2019, shows an October 19, 2017 attack on a school in Tem, in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region.     © 2017 Héni Nsaibia/ MENASTREAM Burned academic materials on a teacher’s desk in Minima village primary school, Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso, following an attack by armed Islamists on May 2, 2019. “They broke the [door to the school’s] office and set fire to the notebooks, the students’ homework, records, documents—everything,” said the principal, Noufou Yampa. “There are no longer any records for the Minima school.” June 13, 2019. © 2019 Noufou Yampa The ruins of the administrative building of a public primary school in Djibo, Sahel region, Burkina Faso, detonated by an explosive by presumed armed Islamists on January 31, 2019. “I went and saw the whole roof gone, all the tin sheets on the ground. The building was torn apart,” said a local resident. The school has remained closed since the attack.   © 2019 Minute.BF A gendarme holds a piece of an improvised explosive device (IED), which was set off during an attack on April 15, 2019 on Nebkieta Private High School in Pissila, Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso. The explosion damaged equipment, shattered windows, and caused the ceiling to fall down in the computer room. © 2019 Joseph Ouedraogo During a November 2018 attack on a middle school in Toulfé village, in Burkina Faso’s Nord region, armed men arrived while students were in class, beat five school employees, and set a fire in an office. The men gave the victims a note “to transmit to the Burkinabè authorities,” a survivor said. The note reads, in French: “Ansaroul Islam forbids school in the province of Soum and the province of Loroum. After this warning, if we find a teacher teaching we will kill him. Democracy barred.”   (c) 2018 Private A student responds to a teacher’s question in an overcrowded classroom at a public primary school in Kaya, Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso. In January 2020, the school had 748 students, including 113 displaced students. “Each day, the displaced students come... we don’t refuse enrollment, but if there isn’t any space they can’t start,” the principal said. © 2020 Lauren Seibert/Human Rights Watch Students sit crammed up to five at desks meant for two, in overcrowded classes of up to 125 students, at a primary school in Kaya, a town hosting tens of thousands of displaced people in Centre-Nord region, Burkina Faso. January 29, 2020. © 2020 Lauren Seibert/Human Rights Watch

Selected Quotes

“The whole school was damaged, burned... Windows, doors, walls so ruined they couldn’t be repaired.”
– Displaced Goenega villager, Barsalogho commune, Centre-Nord region, March 30, 2020.

“They started beating [my colleague] first, then me... They said, ‘You knew we didn’t want you here teaching, and still you dared to continue... You have defied us.’ They said if they come back and take us a second time, it will be to remove our heads.”
– Teacher, victim of armed Islamist attack in Est region, February 12, 2020.

“The moment we saw [the armed Islamists], we ran. ... The principal told us they said they didn’t want to return and find us there [in school]. The school was closed for several months. ... It caused us a lot of problems. We couldn’t study, we had to stay at home.”
– Primary school student, 13, Kaya, Centre-Nord region, February 9, 2020.

“[The students] started climbing the walls to escape—the teachers too... One [attacker]... pointed his gun at me and said, ‘Any child, girl or boy... should be learning the Quran, not French.’... They ... put a handmade explosive on one of the computer tables. I heard an explosion, BOOM... I was so afraid.”
– High school administrator from Pissila, Centre-Nord region, February 13, 2020.

“The attack really disturbed me, so I haven’t been back to school. I’m not even planning to restart. I don’t have the spirit to go back.”
– Former high school student, 26, from Béléhédé village, Sahel region, February 14, 2020.

“The attack hurt me very much, but the fact that after the attack, we weren’t supported… that’s what still bothers me... we had the impression we were abandoned to ourselves.”
– School administrator, victim of an attack in 2018, Nord region, February 17, 2020.

“I lost everything... I am really in need. The government hasn’t helped me.”
– School principal, victim of an attack in 2018, Centre-Nord region, April 30, 2020.

“Since the threats began, schools have started to close in a cascade. ... I continue to teach, but it’s hard to concentrate... you have to look constantly out the window to see if there’s a danger.”
– High school teacher, Gourma province, Est region, February 7, 2020.

“This situation has created a psychosis... Students are no longer at ease being [in class] and doing their schoolwork. ... There has been pressure for teachers to stay and teach... But... they have [little] means to protect themselves. There is no warning and information system in place.”
– Souleymane Badiel, secretary-general of the Federation of National Unions for Education and Research Workers (F-SYNTER), Ouagadougou, December 12, 2019.

“Each day, the displaced students come... we don’t refuse enrollment, but if there isn’t any space they can’t start. ... Some classes have over 100 students.”
Primary school principal in Kaya, Centre-Nord region, January 29, 2020.

“Because the number of [displaced] students is too high... the quality of teaching has suffered a blow.”
– Teacher at a school hosting displaced students in Dédougou, Boucle du Mouhoun region, January 22, 2020.

“With dropping schooling rates, many of the improvements made in recent years have been undone... The children who lose access to education are limited in opportunities. They will be more vulnerable, such as to artisanal gold mining; girls are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”
– Souleymane Diallo, education quality and literacy program manager, Ouagadougou, December 8, 2019.

Saudi Arabia: Free Adult Children of Ex-Official

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Sarah al-Jabri and Omar al-Jabri © Private

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have held two adult children of a former official in incommunicado detention since security forces arrested them in March 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Omar al-Jabri, 21, and Sarah al-Jabri, 20, are children of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri, who has lived in exile in Canada since 2017. Security forces also detained al-Jabri’s brother in May, Human Rights Watch said. 

An informed source told Human Rights Watch that the family believes the detentions are meant to coerce the father to return to Saudi Arabia. Al-Jabri was an advisor to deposed former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and served as the primary Saudi liaison to Western intelligence agencies. His children were arrested 10 days after the detention of Mohammed bin Nayef and another senior prince, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a brother of King Salman and an uncle of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi authorities should immediately inform relatives of Sarah and Omar’s whereabouts and well-being, release them, and end their travel bans, Human Rights Watch said.

“Saudi authorities are sinking to new lows in going after the families of former officials out of favor with the current leadership,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can anyone describe the Saudi leadership as reformist while it’s arbitrarily detaining the children of former officials?”

The informed source told Human Rights Watch that Saad al-Jabri left Saudi Arabia in 2017, before Mohammed bin Nayef was removed and replaced as crown prince by Mohammed bin Salman on June 21, 2017. At the time of Mohammed bin Nayef’s dismissal, only two of al-Jabri’s children – Omar and Sarah, then aged 18 and 17 – remained in Saudi Arabia. Both tried to flee the country that day, but officials stopped them at the airport and told them they were banned from travel abroad with no explanation.

Between June 2017 and March 2020 Omar and Sarah lived alone; authorities froze their bank accounts and financial assets in late 2017. The informed source said that in mid-2018 both were summoned by the Public Prosecution and interrogated separately. The source said that most of the questions were about their father’s whereabouts and activities.

On March 6, when authorities arrested Mohammed bin Nayef and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the children received a summons from the Presidency of State Security. They answered the summons March 9 and security officials told them that their father must return to Saudi Arabia.

On March 16, the source said that a large group of security forces arrested them at home in Riyadh at around 6:00 a.m. The family has not heard news of Sarah and Omar since their detention. The source said authorities have not responded to information requests from the family, which may qualify it as an enforced disappearance.

Security officials returned to the al-Jabri home on March 25 and conducted a 12-hour search, confiscating electronics.

The source said that on May 12, armed security officers raided the home of Saad al-Jabri’s brother, a professor at King Saud University, and detained him without explanation. Authorities also confiscated electronics and documents. The family has received no news about him since his arrest, the source said. He and other relatives have been subjected to arbitrary travel bans since June 2017.

The source said he believes that the push to coerce Saad al-Jabri back to Saudi Arabia is related to the detentions of Mohammed bin Nayef and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 6 that a royal court official accused them of plotting a coup. The informed source told Human Rights Watch it is likely they were detained for complaining privately about the crown prince.

On May 10, the official Twitter account of Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Prisons posted a tweet denying the death of Mohammed bin Nayef and stated he was receiving medical care for a heart attack. The tweet was quickly deleted, and the Saudi Press Agency issued an official statement claiming that the Twitter account had been hacked and posted “incorrect information.”

Saudi authorities have targeted other royal family members. On March 27, authorities detained Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, a son of the late King Abdullah and former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, without explanation and held him incommunicado. On April 15, a verified Twitter account owned by Princess Basma bint Saud, 56, a daughter of the late King Saud, issued a series of tweets stating that the princess and her daughter are being held without charge in al-Hair prison, south of Riyadh, and that her health is deteriorating. The tweets disappeared after several hours. On May 5, Agence France-Presse reported that since the tweets were deleted, family members have received no information about her well-being or status.

“Saudi Arabia’s recent justice reforms have not curbed the authorities’ contempt for the rule of law, showing the country needs a full overhaul of the justice and security sectors,” Page said. 

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